None of my immediate relatives died in the holocaust. My grandmothers both came from Eastern Europe (from White Russia and Lithuania) to New York, as young children. We are proud to have engraved their names on the large metal plaque on Ellis Island, in the waters off Manhattan. After disembarking on Ellis, they could see Lady Liberty nearby, welcoming them. (My grandfathers were born in America, after their own parents came from Eastern Europe). I don’t have to imagine the unimaginable horrors of a relative having to experience being a Jew in Europe during the 1940’s.
When I travelled as an adult on a “roots” trip, to near where one grandmother was born, I also spent time in Berlin and Poland, and for two days visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, its neighboring, much larger camp. Auschitz had the big parking lot full of tour buses, the cafe, and the surreal souvenir stand, and the museum with glass cases of high piles of suitcases of the victims. But then I walked the 10 minute to Birkenau, which is much larger, with rows and rows of stark barracks remaining, the inmates’ living quarters.
In my hour in Birkenau, I didn’t see one other visitor. The skies were stormy, and I shivered when one loud thunderclap broke. I walked into several empty barracks, and tried to imagine spending months sleeping on the wood planks.
Finally, I reached the ruins of the brick crematorium. And there I saw the only signs of life that day at Birkenau: several memorial candles, their wicks aflame, shivering in the wind.
Since making aliyah to Israel 11 years ago, I have felt how the holocaust is so much more central in Israel than in the United States (more survivors moved to Israel after WW2 than any other nation). Every year on Yom HaShoah, the entire nation stops, and together we all bow our heads in silent remembrance.
Unbelievably, when the Israeli Defense Forces were founded (in May 1948, amidst the fighting of Israel’s War of Independence), about half of the soldiers were holocaust survivors. It’s pretty clear that in many ways, Israel “grew from the ashes” of the holocaust.
Fast forward to 2017. I could wax cynical about how some in our Israeli government often capitalize on the holocaust for political mileage: the mufti did this or that terrible thing back then, it’s now 1939 all over again, etc etc.
But to stick to the facts – there are now about 200,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel, and nearly a third of them live below the poverty line. Almost 90% of Israeli survivors live on pension or other benefits of less than 5000 NIS/month. Last year, a scathing report was released by Israel’s welfare minister, revealing that more than 20,000 survivors in Israel had never received the government assistance owed to them (much of this assistance were the reparations that came from Germany, but haven’t been distributed yet). The benefits amounted last year to more than $30 million.
The Welfare Ministry is now trying to contact these survivors to get these benefits to them, which include stipends for nursing care, additional hours for in-home aids, and discounts on electricity.
Early this year I went with a friend to visit a survivor in Tel Aviv, Zeni Rozenstein. Zeni is full of energy, and delightful to listen to. She shows us a photo from only a year before she was taken to the labor camp, in 1941, and asks, “Didn’t I look like Shirley Temple?” She was five in the photo. Her hair is still (now colored) blond.
Two of Zeni’s livingroom walls are covered with her amazing paintings – many of which transform her suffering into something new (she began drawing as a child, and told us she drew constantly in the Ukrainian labor camp she and her extended family were taken to). For example, a new painting of a 3-petalled flower, which Zeni told us is based on the design of a pair of earrings ripped out of her childhood ears in the camp. Others are abstract, full of feelings and color.
And still, with all of her resilience, Zeni mentioned several times how much she suffers from Israeli government neglect. Her small pension and health insurance don’t cover the cost of the dentures, or hearing aids, she needs. Her fridge is never very full.
There are several citizens’ fundraising initiatives to help Israel’s remaining survivors. One of my favorite is created by activist Adar Weinreb, who also met with Zeni, and listened to her stories. Adar’s initiative is designed to benefit The Association for Immediate Help for Holocaust Survivors, the Tel Aviv-based, all volunteer organization where Zeni spends much of her time.
Adar’s crowdfunding campaign is here, and it has some fantastic gifts – including Zeni’s book, “The Angel Above the Door” (only in Hebrew at this point), as well as some of her original paintings, for larger contributions. There are photos of many of her paintings, on Adar’s crowdfunding page.
The average age of an Israeli Holocaust survivor today is 87. On average, 45 Israeli survivors die every day. It’s been estimated that in eight years, by 2025, all of the remaining survivors will have died.
One more time: about eight years from now, all Israel’s remaining survivors, who lived through unspeakable conditions, will be gone.
Let’s help these survivors while they’re alive. To live in dignity and some comfort, to be able to tell their stories a few more times to those wanting to listen.