This year marked the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a chance once again for a sliver of humanity to honor the heroism of Jews facing certain destruction. It was also of course another year of Yom HaShoah, where a sliver of humanity acknowledges annually the worst atrocity to befall the Jewish people.
And yet, this daughter of a survivor found herself tuned out. Not hostile to the remembrances, but somewhat turned away. I glanced through some written recollections, but without the close attention I’ve given these sorts of things in past years. I did notice something about the Israeli government giving into the demands of the Polish government to airbrush out the complicity of Polish Gentiles in the slaughter of Jews as the price for continued access, I gather, for Israeli students to the March of the Living death camps. This political waltz made me want to scream, but instead left me just shrugging at the nearly predictable stupidity of it all.
What did get my attention was an Israeli Holocaust survivor noting how people like her are trotted out for Yom HaShoah, but find their daily struggles to survive ignored. After all, no one wants to talk about hungry, insecurely housed, isolated, struggling Holocaust survivors. We’d rather talk about the dead ones, and honor them with museums, and classes, and more museums, and more classes. But as a survivor I recall said years ago, maybe wait on the museums and meet the needs of the living instead. In this, the Jewish community has failed miserably.
Are there efforts to help struggling survivors? Here and there. But they are dwarfed by building projects, and educational projects, and history projects, and so on and so on. How is it that our community can so abjectly fail the very people it cannot stop obsessing about? I’ll offer my own theory: we fail because feeding a hungry, socially isolated, struggling Holocaust survivor doesn’t get you–as a big money donor–the accolades and naming opportunities that attach to things like museum projects. There’s no wing in Ida’s meager apartment which can be renamed in a donor’s honor. She might not even remember your name after you drop off a food package. Or worse, she might chastise you for letting her go hungry for so long.
We shamefully use and abuse both survivors and their memory to fulfill communal objectives that have nothing to do with nurturing the literal remnants of our people who struggle just to get through another day. For every Dr. Ruth or other survivor luminary, there are many more anonymous victims who are losing their battle to save their bodies and minds from the ravages of time, and doing so mostly ignored by a community that claims to care. But shamefully does not. Except to fundraise off their continued suffering.
I have long believed that the worst thing we have done as Jews is to try to build loyalty and connection to Jews and Judaism on the ashes of Auschwitz. I understand why that was done, but it bespeaks a tragic lack of belief in the messages we claim Jews and Judaism bring to the world, viz., that every human being has infinite dignity and worth; that saving a single life is tantamount to saving an entire world; and that we are obligated to care for and nurture one another–but especially to care for and nurture those among us who are struggling, often silently and hidden from view. We believe in so many things that we have reason to be proud of, and to want to share enthusiastically with the world. And yet, we chose instead to build our spiritual and communal connections largely around the worst tragedy to befall us.
We Jews are a remembering people. We recall triumphs and tragedies (mostly the latter, it seems) from thousands of years ago, right up to yesterday. That matters. People without memory are beings without roots, without a sense of how the past always meets the present, and too often with an ugly familiarity. People without memory too easily have a casual arrogance about their place in the world, and that leads to terrible things. But people who lean so heavily on memory that they refuse to answer the calls of the human beings alive right now are learning all the wrong lessons. We don’t remember out of a need to fetishize memory and suffering; we remember as a call to action in the here and now.
That is the root of our failure. We have tried to build monuments to memory that prioritize monuments and memory, but too often ignore those still among us who have needs. They will soon be gone, and we will wring our hands and cry over their absence. We will listen to their voices, admire the whiz-bang presence they still have through holograms, AI, or whatever other devices we invent to keep memory alive. But none of that matters to a struggling human being in the here and now.
As for me, I have not done enough, to be sure. I need to do more and will. But to those who have done nothing to meet the actual needs of survivors, save your tributes, your Marches of the Living, your cries of Never Again! Instead, do everything to make sure that the material needs of survivors are met, and met again and again, until there is nothing more to be done, but to make their memories a blessing. Without the security of food in a gurgling stomach, a safe and secure home, heat in a cold winter, and medicine to alleviate pain, and hopefully extend a dignified life, all the other stuff is self-serving noise. Nothing more.
(As for our family, we direct our primary Holocaust survivor-related support to The Survivor Mitzvah Project (focused on staggeringly impoverished survivors in Eastern Europe), and The Blue Card, which assists survivors in the U.S. We give to other organizations as well, including much larger entities like the JDC. Just give where you can do the most good for survivors. Do it now. Because time is indeed running out.