Shoah Shanda

Jewish Light Editorial

In the wake of last Friday’s observance of Holocaust Memorial Day, coinciding with the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of the infamous Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, a disturbing report demonstrated that many of the the survivors of that dark time are still victims.

According to a CNN report by Shachar Peled, an estimated one-third of the 100,000 Holocaust survivors living in the United States are living at or below the poverty line. The figure comes from The Blue Card, a nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance to survivors of the genocide that killed more than 6 million Jews in Europe.

The alarming CNN story noted that compared to the overall figure of 10 percent of Americans age 65 and older who live in poverty, as reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Holocaust survivors are at much greater risk.

The report did not break out a state-by-state or city-by-city set of statistics on this issue, but according to Louis Albert, CEO of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of St. Louis, there are approximately 300 Holocaust survivors living in the St. Louis area, including some from the former Soviet Union.  

Albert believes that the local statistics are similar to the national findings; about 26 percent of this population lives at or near the federal poverty level.  This population segment of about 100 is served by JF&CS, as needed, with food, financial support, information and referral, advocacy for survivor related benefits, homemaker assistance and chaplaincy services.

CNN quotes Magda Rosenberg, 88, of Long Island, N.Y., who lost her entire family at Auschwitz, as lamenting, “We’re dying out.  In another 10 years there won’t be a Holocaust survivor left.”  

She is right.  Along with U.S. veterans of World War II, the Holocaust survivor community is made up of people in their mid-80s and older, and they are dying at the rate of several hundred per day.  Perhaps the most famous Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, who was only 15 when he was liberated from Buchenwald, died last year at the age of 85, symbolizing the mortality of the survivor community.

CNN reports that of the 50,000 survivors residing in the New York metropolitan area, 52 percent are considered “poor,” living below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines, or an individual annual income of less than $18,000. That figure comes from Selfhelp, an organization that has assisted victims of Nazi crimes since 1936.

Hanan Somhon, vice president of Holocaust survivors services at Selfhelp, calls the numbers “a shocking statistic.”  He added that survivors from the former Soviet Union have it particularly bad, with 80 percent of them living in poverty.  “They came here much later in their life at the fall of the Soviet Union, with no Social Security, pension or other type of supporting income for retirement.”

Masha Pearl, executive director of The Blue Card, says many factors contribute to the sad financial picture, including a lifetime of menial jobs because of poor language skills and social isolation. For these survivors today, at the end of their lives, “it is beyond difficult to make ends meet.”

As a result, she adds:

“Many are embarrassed to be in this situation, feeling as if they’ve failed twice — not being able to save their family and now having to turn for help. People with food stamps in the grocery store are trembling and afraid that someone will see them. Many of them wait to come forward because they are too ashamed.”

CNN says The Blue Card, which serves 2,500 Holocaust survivors nationwide, saw a 20 jump in requests for help last year. Their latest survey found the greatest needs for financial assistance were for home care, food and utilities. The majority of those who depend on The Blue Card — 77 percent — are women.

Often, there may be a tendency to think of the Holocaust in terms of ghastly black-and-white films of murdered victims in the Nazi death camps. 

But their suffering was over during the Shoah, while the survivors living in poverty are here and now and their needs must be addressed immediately.

We applaud the Jewish Federation and JF&CS for their efforts locally, and we hope those efforts will increase as needed to assure that the survivors of the greatest calamity ever to befall the Jewish world will not be victimized again.