As the world commemorates the Holocaust, some survivors in Israel struggle
Several dozen octogenarians, bundled up against the cold, chatted in Russian and Hebrew as they picked heaps of carrots, onions and grapefruits in a courtyard in Jerusalem.
Almost all Holocaust survivors, they were collecting donations of food and winter blankets before a snowstorm hit the city on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Israel was established in 1948 as a haven for Jews following the Holocaust, and it goes to great lengths to remember the 6 million Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide and to honor those who survived as heroes.
Yet of Israel’s roughly 165,000 survivors, about one in three live in poverty, according to a survivor advocacy group. Although survivors receive government stipends, many still depend on food donations organized by Israeli charities like Chasdei Naomi.
“What really needs to be responsible for caring for Holocaust survivors is the State of Israel. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist,” said Tshuva Cabra, the group’s head of donations.
On Wednesday, the association’s staff and volunteers distributed food parcels, flowers and chocolates to destitute survivors in Jerusalem. “If we won’t be there for them, who will be? It’s really sad that only NGOs are standing up and taking action,” she said.
Thursday’s international day of remembrance marked the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Poland. It is estimated that a third of world Jewry was wiped out by Nazi Germany and its allies. After the war, hundreds of thousands of survivors made their way to the new Israel.
Year after year, the number of Holocaust survivors continues to dwindle, and with it the country’s living connection to those who endured one of the greatest atrocities in modern history. The Holocaust Survivors Rights Authority, a government department, said more than 15,000 survivors died in 2021.
The Center for Holocaust Survivor Organizations in Israel, an umbrella group representing 50 organizations that help Holocaust survivors, said about a third of Holocaust survivors in Israel live in poverty.
Many of the poorest immigrated to Israel in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union after its dissolution. They arrived with few means, struggled to learn a new language late in life, and many struggled to establish social networks.
“During the war, it was very difficult for the Jews. The Jews suffered from the Nazis. We fled and did everything we could to survive,” said Paulina Perchuk, an 83-year-old immigrant from Ukraine. “I hope this does not happen again in the world.”
Colette Avital, a former Israeli diplomat and Holocaust survivor who heads the Center for Holocaust Survivor Organizations in Israel, said that while the government’s attitude has improved, “coverage is short and that doesn’t not enough”. She said there was broad public support for the survivors, but the government needed to provide more help.
Israel’s Ministry of Social Equality said it distributed some $1.2 billion in support to Holocaust survivors in 2021. Just over 50,000 survivors receive monthly stipends of between $800 and $2,000 a month. , while about 15,500 receive $3,600 due to a more severe disability.
But for many, those sums are not enough to make ends meet as the cost of living in Israel continues to soar. Charity Chasdei Naomi says it is providing food for 10,000 survivors, a figure that has risen by 4,000 since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Over the past year, requests for help paying electricity bills have increased by 40% in line with inflation and the rising cost of living in Israel.
Meirav Cohen, Israel’s Minister for Social Equality, said his department oversees the “final watch” on the welfare of Holocaust survivors.
“The average age of Holocaust survivors is 85,” she said in a statement released by her office. “These are the last years that we need to serve them, allow them to age with dignity and document their stories as much as possible, because very soon there will be no one left to tell them.”
His office declined an interview request.
The memory of the Holocaust remains a cornerstone of Israeli identity. A large percentage of the country is made up of survivors and generations of their descendants. The country celebrates its own Holocaust Remembrance Day every spring. Foreign dignitaries visiting the country pay their respects to Jews killed in the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, which serves as a memorial and research center.
Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the government would allocate nearly $10 million in additional funds to Yad Vashem to help “preserve the memory of the Holocaust in Israel and around the world.” This marked a nearly 20% jump in the institution’s annual budget in 2020, of which the Israeli government funded more than a third.
Avital praised the government for allocating more funds to Yad Vashem, but added that “the welfare of Holocaust survivors should come before anything else.”