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It’s a small Jewish world

I’m sure it’s happened to you … you meet a stranger at shul or at a social event, and you immediately find a connection between someone you both know. Jewish geography is a game we all like to play.

It’s true that you can usually find no more than one or two degrees of separation when you meet a new person in our community. And after we make a connection, we often say to ourselves, “It’s a small Jewish world,” delighted that we can find these connections so easily.

But there is another side to the story. The fact that we there are so few degrees of separation between us highlights the fact of just how small the Jewish population is, in relation to the rest of the world.

Estimates of the worldwide Jewish population range between 13-15 million people.  The total population in the world today is slightly more than 8 billion … we are less than 2% of the total.

I was reminded of these demographics a couple of weeks ago, after the Claims Conference published a very comprehensive study on the number and the makeup of Holocaust survivors. The study estimated that approximately 245,000 Jews who were alive at the time of the Holocaust are still alive today.

That may sound like a sizable number, but in years past it was far greater, as each year we lose a large number of individuals who survived the horror of the Holocaust. It is estimated that instead of 13 million Jews in the world today, there would be about 32 million Jews in the world today had the Holocaust not happened.

Here are a few more interesting stats about the survivors. About 50% of the survivors live in Israel, and 16% live in America. All told there are survivors living in 90 different countries across the globe.

Not surprisingly the median age of Holocaust survivors is 86 years old. The population of survivors range in age between 77 (those just born at the end of the Holocaust) to over 100 years old, and they were born between 1912 and 1946. The oldest living survivor is Rose Girone, who is 112 years old. About 20% of the Holocaust are over 90 years old. The majority of Jewish Holocaust survivors are female – approximately 61%.

While the numbers themselves are interesting, it’s important to look past the numbers and dig deeper into the issue of what it meant to survive the Holocaust. These individuals were born into a world that wanted to see them murdered. They were fortunate to have been spared from the gas chambers. They were forced to rebuild their lives. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust, they secured new jobs, raised families, and endured the loss of countless friends and family members.  This new study underscores the fact that the few survivors who are still left are only getting older and will not be around forever.

That’s why it’s so vitally important for us to continue to gather as many names and as much testimony from the survivors who are still with us, before this generation of survivors completely disappears. The Shoah Foundation (which was established by Steven Spielberg), Yad Vashem, and The United States Holocaust Museum have all gathered a plethora of first-person accounts about the Holocaust.  Our grandchildren and great grandchildren will need to rely on this information, as in 20 years there will unfortunately be very few if any Holocaust survivors left to share their stories with us personally.

I was reminded how important such testimony is just last week, when someone shared with me a video of a town meeting in California, in which the issue of the Gaza War was being discussed. One woman spoke, deploring the actions of the Hamas terrorists who murdered, raped, and beheaded Israeli citizens on October 7th. Suddenly the crowd erupted in protest. No, they screamed, it’s a lie. There was no murder. No one was raped or beheaded. Any of the photos or the videos that you are seeing, they said, were produced by Israel to make it look like Hamas killed their citizens.

I couldn’t believe what I was watching! Despite the overwhelming evidence accounting for the atrocities that happened on that fateful day in Israel, a group of educated Americans refused to believe what should be obvious to all. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Today there are still plenty of people who believe that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Why should this be any different?

It’s not important whether it’s the need to remove the dissonance in their heads so they can write their own narrative about the poor Palestinians in Gaza, or whether it’s plain old antisemitism that fuels the behavior of those denying the Hamas atrocities. The point is that we need to make sure the stories are told accurately and often, over and over again, so that no one is under any false illusions about what really happened. We will tell our grandchildren what happened on October 7th … where we were and how Israel changed forever after this date. But what will happen when we are gone?

Reha Bennicasa, who is the daughter of Rose Girone (the oldest living Holocaust survivor), said, “As a survivor and the daughter of a survivor, I cannot stress enough how important it is to share our testimonies. Given the declining survivor population, and the rise in antisemitism, we need to encourage the world to learn about our collective history so that the Holocaust will never happen again.”

Amen to that.

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the author of "Meet Me in the Middle," a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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