Friday, April 20, 2012

Caring for survivors

Caring for survivors

Ronny Douek

We invest enormous funds, resources and effort in commemorating the Holocaust. Thousands of teenagers and soldiers travel to Poland to take part in memorial ceremonies every year. Monuments are built across the country. Yad Vashem is renovating and expanding. For better and worse, the Holocaust is present in Israeli public discourse – as an emblem, a warning, a political symbol. All this is understandable, natural and justified, for the most part. Zionist leader Berl Katznelson said a nation that has no past has no present and also no future. The Holocaust is the most significant event in Jewish history, one that we will continue to bear with us in future generations.

But the Holocaust is not just history. People who experienced it in their lifetimes are still among us. For survivors, the Holocaust is not just a symbol – first and foremost it is a personal experience that will never be forgotten. And their presence among us is not to be taken for granted. They can give us more than any book or monument. Future generations will only be able to learn about the Holocaust from watching movies, reading books or hearing stories second- or third-hand. They will not benefit from unmediated contact with those who physically endured the horror. So why does it sometimes seem that we prefer the stone monuments and commemorative films to the real monuments - the living and breathing people who are still with us?

The continuing neglect of Holocaust survivors is no longer a secret, but a well-researched and documented fact. Israel has not always known how to treat the victims of Nazi crimes with respect or offer them peace – as evidenced by the denial and insults directed at them in the 1950s, the meager allowances they have been offered in their old age, the bank accounts that disappeared and the assets that were restored too late. We cannot undo what was done, just as we cannot stop the hands of time. The people who were 10 years old in the early years of the annihilation are in their 80s today: Some of them have lost many of their friends, require medical services or high-quality nursing care – and no less important, need someone to talk to, someone who will listen to them as they recount their life experiences or read from the newspaper. There is something particularly tragic in the fact that many survivors can only pour their hearts out to the foreign caretakers accompanying them for a stroll.

The government bears responsibility for providing these survivors with basic services. However, the moral obligation to care for Holocaust survivors rests on the shoulders of all Israelis. There is no time to waste in confronting this challenge. Last summer, Israelis took to the streets to demand social justice; it is only fitting that on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, and those that follow, we turn our gaze away from the stone monuments to the survivors who are still alive. We must knock on their doors and open our hearts to them – and choose to live not just with myths, but also with our next-door neighbors or those we meet on the street.

On the national level, we can recruit the business and non-profit sectors to increase the funds allotted to the welfare of Holocaust survivors, so that organizations helping them can provide better services in cooperation with government authorities. With the help of volunteers, youth movements and associations, we must reach out to solitary survivors and offer them company in their final years. But for all this to happen, every one of us must feel a sense of purpose and urgency.

Spending time with Holocaust survivors in their final years is a historic responsibility we all share – as a society and a nation. In the coming years, let us not live the Holocaust as a virtual tragedy that is distant and abstract. Instead, let us accept this final obligation toward those who survived the horror. 

The experience of meeting Holocaust survivors can be difficult and unsettling; it is also a great honor – and one that will soon disappear. We must not forgo that, and we must not continue to neglect the survivors.

The writer is the founder and chairman of the social organization "Zionism 2000 - for Social Responsibility, and the chairman of Sheatufim, the Israel Center for Civil Society.