While the Jewish Community Watches, Survivors Suffer

By Roman Kent

Published April 23, 2004, issue of April 23, 2004.
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Throughout the last half century, as Jewish communities have raised large sums of money for various philanthropic causes, I cannot remember a single organization that has not used the theme of Holocaust survivors as a means of raising funds. We did not mind because the funds raised were for good causes. We believed that if the memory of the Holocaust was helpful, let it be.

Many times, however, I think how helpful it would have been had the Jewish community remembered us during the years of the Holocaust — remembered how lonely and helpless we were during that horrific period. I cannot help but look back to the time of our suffering, and think that the response of the world to the Holocaust and to our suffering was indifference. I cannot help but think of George Bernard Shaw’s remark that “The worst sin toward our fellow men is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that is the essence of ‘inhumanity’!”

With all that we have endured, however, an invisible wall still exists between the Jewish community in America and us.

In our old age, gruesome memories come back to haunt us, and we relive that period in our lives. In a way, we are the same as any old, sick person. But we have undeniably experienced more pain, more bad memories, more suffering. We witnessed evil first-hand and are understandably more suspicious. To top it off, we feel a greater sense of loneliness because we remember being abandoned. Sometimes we can’t help feeling we are being abandoned once again.

Think how the 6 million victims of the Holocaust must be turning over in their graves — or rather, in the scattered places, not really graves, where their ashes and bones were strewn throughout the camps and ghettos. They must despise the nasty arguments over how the money they had placed in Swiss banks for the safety and protection of their families will now be distributed.

There is no question that huge sums are needed to meet the medical needs of elderly survivors in the United States and throughout the world. The United Jewish Communities and the UJA Federation of New York prepared a very informative study of the needs of survivors living in the United States. Those organizations deserve recognition for their fine work, and I for one commend them. However, the unresolved issues of when, where and how the needed funds will be secured, and why so little was done in the past, is what troubles me.

Sadly, that is where the Jewish community has fallen short. What has the Jewish community done for needy survivors over the past few years, and what does it plan to do for them in the future? Based on their own estimates, it is easy to establish the amount spent, and the figures quoted by UJC speak for themselves; frankly, the Jewish communal contribution is negligible.

According to a recent report, approximately $15 million was spent in the United States during 2003 for the well-being of survivors. To the best of my knowledge, the Claims Conference contributed about $12 million. Icheic’s contribution was $2.4 million, and there was a negligible amount provided by the Swiss banks settlement fund. Since these figures add up to about $15 million, where is the contribution of the Jewish community?

Knowing the acute need of Holocaust survivors for medical help, where has the Jewish community been? Did it come forward with additional funds to assist needy survivors, the need that they so intimately and correctly described to Judge Edward Korman in their request for funds?

As to the future, we all know that time is working against us. The average age of a Holocaust survivor is 80 years or more. If any help is to be offered during our lifetime, it has to be now, today — not tomorrow, not next month, not next year.

In the petition presented to Korman, I did not see any tangible proposal acknowledging that the need today is great, that the available funds cannot meet the worldwide demand of survivors, that a fair share should be distributed to survivors in America and the rest will be covered by the community to the best of its abilities.

Since I did not see such a proposal in the petitions, I started to wonder again. What would UJC and the local federations do if the Claims Conference did not exist and there were no monies available from the Swiss and insurance funds? Would they just let survivors live out the rest of their lives in desperate need of medical and financial help? Wasn’t surviving the Holocaust enough of a punishment?

After all, for more than 50 years, practically all Jewish organization have raised some of their funds in the name of survivors. At the end of our lives, shouldn’t it be the top priority of the Jewish community at large to assist survivors from their own funds, and at least substantially supplement the funds available from other sources?

Going forward, it is my ardent hope that Jewish communities be in the forefront of providing the necessary assistance to needy survivors. Only then would they have the moral right to ask others to do the same. They would have earned the right to say loud and clear that others should follow their example. For it is only together that we can help survivors in need.

Above all, let us not disturb the sanctity of the 6 million victims by fighting and bickering over the distribution of available funds — let them rest in peace.

Roman Kent is chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and treasurer of the Claims Conference.

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