Our Responsibility to Holocaust Survivors

By Marilyn Henry

Published March 14, 2003, issue of March 14, 2003.
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The Jewish Council for Public Affairs last month called for “any and all Holocaust-related funds” to be used to aid impoverished survivors. Amid reports of needy survivors in Florida and Boston, the JCPA passed a resolution at its annual plenum in which it objected to setting aside any discretionary funds for Holocaust education, research and documentation.

The JCPA resolution called for continued vigorous efforts to obtain additional restitution payments from “governments and institutions that have not as yet made significant and appropriate contributions.” The resolution’s authors, it seems, are unaware that such vigorous efforts have been under way for more than 50 years and have generated more than 100 billion Deutsche mark — all of which has been disbursed to individual survivors.

No one would suggest that this — or any — amount is adequate to redress the unspeakable suffering and losses of Nazi victims. But the JCPA missed a crucial point. Rather than focusing solely on “governments and institutions,” the question is why American Jews — who have financed scores of Holocaust museums, memorials and monuments — don’t help care for the needy Nazi victims among us. As a community, we faithfully honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, but seem indifferent to the welfare of the survivors.

There is an enduring assumption that the exclusive responsibility for survivors rests with the Germans, Austrians, Dutch and other European nations and enterprises. Yes, the Europeans have a profound obligation to Nazi victims. But the American Jewish community also has debts to survivors — and not on moral or compassionate grounds alone. As a group, Holocaust survivors, whether rich or poor, have been devoted donors during the last 50 years to Jewish communal causes. When they are in need, the community is obliged to respond.

Furthermore, the American Jewish community has proportionately the smallest “share” of Holocaust survivors in the world, according to research by Ukeles Associates in New York. Some 37% of the survivors live in Israel; another 24% — roughly 200,000 — are in the former Soviet Union. There are more survivors in Europe than the estimated 137,000 in the United States.

More telling than the survivor population figures, however, are the demographics of the communities in which they live, and whether those communities can support them. In the former Soviet Union, Nazi victims are a significant proportion of the total Jewish community — more than one in four, according to Ukeles Associates. And in Israel, one in 16 Jews is a Holocaust survivor. In the United States, by contrast, the number is only one in 33.

In other words, in the United States — which has one of the richest Jewish communities in the world — Holocaust survivors are not a numerically significant proportion of the overall population, and the financial resources required to care for them by the American Jewish community are nowhere nearly as onerous as they are for any other Jewish community in the world.

It is a burden that the American Jewish community should be prepared to shoulder gracefully. The funds from European governments and enterprises for Nazi-era damages are finite. When they run out, Jewish communities around the world must be ready to provide services for survivors in the twilight of their years.

At the council’s plenum last month, JCPA chair Michael Bohnen told reporters that his organization’s resolution “could have an immediate impact.” No doubt the supporters of that resolution believe they helped survivors. But it is symbolic at best, and JCPA undercut its credibility by being so slow and so woefully uninformed about this issue. Its resolution says that the “shocking situation” of survivors’ poverty has only recently begun to come to the attention of many in the Jewish community, in part because the problem is relatively new.

Sadly, the truth is that this issue is not new. There have been sizable, but invisible, pockets of poverty among survivors for a half-century. But during the last 10 years, there has been no excuse for communal ignorance, as this issue has been prominently discussed in newspapers, international conferences and Jewish social welfare agencies.

If the JCPA and other Jewish communal organizations want to be of service, they should direct their efforts toward ensuring that survivors’ concerns are addressed on the national community’s financial agenda. Rather than only looking to Europe for restitution, they should take the initiative in helping local communities that are home to disproportionately large numbers of Nazi victims — particularly in South Florida, where government agencies are woefully inadequate in providing for the elderly.

Most importantly, Jewish communal organizations should confront the wrenching decisions within the local federations and national Jewish agencies about which other services should be cut in order to provide the funds needed to guarantee that survivors — and, indeed, all Jewish elderly — are able to live their final years in dignity.

Marilyn Henry is the author of the monograph “Fifty Years of Holocaust Restitution” in the “2002 American Jewish Year Book” (American Jewish Committee).

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