I had heard the stories of fear, deprivation and perseverance at a young age. First, from a neighbor who lived upstairs from my family in Israel, then as a child living in New York from my grandparents who told me of their escape from Nazi persecution. Years later, as a young adult, I visited the homes of Holocaust survivors. I saw that not only did the emotional scars never fade, but the atrocities of the war had lasting direct and indirect damage on the daily lives of a population aging into their 80s, 90s and 100s who are struggling to make ends meet.
When you visit the home of a man in his 80s and see he is keeping the thermostat at 57 degrees fahrenheit when it is 17 degrees outside. When you see a women freezing leftover cups of coffee to save for later because it might not be in the budget next month. When you see someone avoid going to the doctor because she fears it will mean she will be admitted to the hospital and may never return to her home.
When you witness these things, you ask why: Why do people who have suffered in their youth have to face indignities and uncertainty in their old age? I became determined to do something about it.
In 2009, I joined The Blue Card, a nonprofit dedicated to providing ongoing, direct financial aid and support programs for medical care, rent subsidies, food, home care, transportation and other basic necessities to Holocaust survivors in need in the United States. There are approximately 100,000 Holocaust survivors living in the United States today, and around one-third live at or below the poverty line. The majority of Holocaust survivors in the U.S. try to get by on less than $23,000 a year.
As the number of survivors declines, the need for financial assistance of those still alive increases. We have seen requests for assistance grow year by year due to an increasing number of medical issues, the rising cost of living and the uncertainty of a changing healthcare system. In all, there is an unmet need of roughly $5,000 per person per year to cover the gaps and shortfalls from other assistance programs.
This Holocaust Remembrance Day the time to “never forget” has never been more vital. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) tracked that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. surged nearly 60% in 2017.
At the same time we remember the horrors of the past, we must act now to secure the future well-being of Holocaust survivors. The time to help is limited.
From financial donations to volunteering, there are a number of ways to get involved and help Holocaust survivors today:
Offer your time – a little companionship can go a long way.
Companionship, affection and emotional support are basic relationship needs for us all, but can be priceless for Holocaust survivors. Many survivors have lost their families and do not have a strong support network that they can rely on, especially when an emergency happens. In fact, an estimated 75 percent of survivors live alone and many of these seniors have difficulty performing the routine activities of daily life.
Providing company and friendship to elderly Holocaust survivors produces strong emotional health benefits for individuals that already went through so much. This could be a visit to their home for tea, a visit to their nursing home for a game of cards or driving them to the drugstore to run errands.
Learn about volunteering opportunities through outreach to organizations such as UJA-Federation, your local JCC or The Blue Card, which has a program that organizes visits to Holocaust survivors in the hospital.
Don’t underestimate the power of listening.
Listening to the experiences of survivors of the Holocaust who are still with us, in addition to recorded testimonials, will help give voice to a generation that will largely be lost to us in the next 10-20 years. Unfortunately, the window to hear first-hand testimonials is quickly closing.
Whenever possible, take the opportunity to connect with survivors in your community so that their stories will live on after they are gone. You can find temples or community centers in your local area that host panels, guest speakers and movie screenings.
Give back through activities that give you joy.
You can volunteer to fundraise for Holocaust survivors through a variety of events and experiences such as endurance walks or runs. Joining a race through a charity team is a great way to give, while also getting to have an amazing personal experience with friends and family. The Blue Card takes part in various sporting events including the TCS New York City Marathon, the Miami Marathon and the New York City Triathlon.
You can also give back while doing an everyday task like shopping online. Many organizations participate in Amazon Smile. When you enroll in the program, a portion of your purchase will be donated to the charitable organization that supports Holocaust survivors of your choice.
Contribute what you can – any amount helps.
Aging Holocaust survivors have a steadily growing need for financial assistance to afford basic necessities from food to rent, and growing medical bills for dental care and cancer care.
Dating back to the severe famine, stress and elements they were exposed to during the war, studies have found that Holocaust survivors face a higher rate of chronic and acute illness such as cancer and heart disease. Also, they are permanently living with the psychological and emotional scars of the atrocities and displacement they faced.
Donate what you can to improve the quality of life for your community members and neighbors. Engage with your employer to encourage a matching donations program. Share The Blue Card’s mission with your friends and encourage them to get involved and/or donate.
To help Holocaust survivors live their remaining years in dignity, there needs to be a combined effort by government, social service agencies, private organizations, nonprofits and individuals. But to honor their spirit and ease their suffering, we must all do our part. Whether it’s making a donation, spreading awareness about those in need or listening to someone tell their story – even the smallest gesture can have a big impact on improving lives.
You can learn about volunteering opportunities, make a donation online or arrange for a bequest in memory of a loved one, by visiting www.bluecardfund.org.
Masha Pearl is the executive director of The Blue Card, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing direct, ongoing financial aid and support to Holocaust survivors in need in the United States.