On January 27, 2020, the United Nations, along with many in the International Community, will commemorate the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, with the main event taking place here, at the UN Headquarters in New York. This day, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of the notorious Nazi Extermination Camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau on the same day in 1945, was designated by the United Nations as an international day of commemoration to honor the victims of the Holocaust. Resolution 60/7, unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 1, 2005, rejected any denial of the Holocaust and urged Member States to develop educational programs to instill the memory of the tragedy in future generations to prevent genocide from occurring again. Since 2006, when the first commemoration took place, this day of remembrance has become a fixture in the political and educational calendars in many countries the world over.
In Israel, the official events of the Fifth World Holocaust Forum were launched on January 22, 2020. The main event at Israel’s Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, saw the arrival in Israel of high-level delegations from almost 50 countries, all coming together in the Jewish State to remember the Holocaust and commit to fighting antisemitism.
On January 21, 2020, the Permanent Missions of Israel and the Russian Federation to the UN joined in a high-level opening of an exhibition commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau at the UN. The event, which called for international cooperation against forces of hatred and antisemitism, was attended by both Israeli and Russian Ambassadors as well as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
However, there was one speaker who stood out at the ceremony. His name was Zoltan Matyash, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 1944, the Nazis occupied his hometown, Mukachevo, and forced his family into a ghetto. Matyash attested that he and his family were greeted at Auschwitz by the infamous Josef Mengele, the Nazi Doctor Death who surveyed prisoners as they arrived to determine whether they were fit for work or were to be gassed. He sent Matyash’s mother and sisters to the crematory. Matyash and his father, Yaakob, were stripped naked, shaved, disinfected and given uniforms. Their identification numbers were tattooed on their left arms: A-6307 for Matyash, A-6308 for his father. Not far from the barracks where they received their tattoos, thick smoke billowed.
A guard told his father it was where his wife and daughters were.
Nothing compares to coming face to face with the horrors of the Holocaust by listening first hand to accounts of survivors. Looking in their tearing eyes, observing their frail bodies, almost broken by years’-long burden, by the pain & memories of so many beloved ones, and their faces say it all. How could it be that this happened?!
Maytash, in an interview last year, said he was eager to share his story with young people so they would know the reality of what happened and stressed that the memories haunt him almost every night. “Just ask my wife”, he mentioned sadly.
But there was something else which came up at that interview. Illness seems to have severely impacted Mr. Maytash and his wife, who’ve been living in the US since coming here in 1990. He has arthritis and a pacemaker; she has high blood pressure and severe asthma. The couple rely on Supplemental Security Income and food stamps each month, in addition to very modest monthly payments of German Social Security for Holocaust survivors who worked in Nazi ghettos and a German government compensation for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. That’s all they have to live on. As the story states: “With a modest income and health concerns, Mr. and Mrs. Maytash struggle to even pay their monthly rent on their subsidized apartment”.
According to statistics published in 2018 by Blue Card, which provides financial assistance to survivors, one-third of Holocaust survivors in the United States continue to live at or below the poverty line. The 2018 report also indicated that 61 percent of the 100,000 survivors in the United States live on less than $23,000 a year. According to the organization, requests for aid grow 20 percent annually with three quarters of the survivors the group aids being older than 75. A similar problem exists in the State of Israel, where an estimated 200,000 elderly Holocaust survivors reside today and a quarter of whom live below the poverty line, per Aviv for Holocaust Survivors, an organization dedicated to helping struggling survivors.
Standing in that room, listening to Maytash’s painful story, was necessary and tough enough. To learn he was struggling to make ends meet was too much to bear. As they grow old, these survivors face medical issues, they must cope with a rising cost of living, not to mention the complications of the health system. Matyash, as other elderly survivors who had gone through the gates of hell, experienced humanity at its lowest. They will carry those scars with them to their graves. The least we could do as Jews, as human beings, as a society, is to show them some humanity, some compassion. The least we could do is to do something about this. These survivors have surely suffered enough.
Because sometimes remembering is simply not enough.