Last week, the world marked 65 years since Auschwitz was liberated. The unique horror and scope of the camp’s mechanization of death has made it a symbol of the Holocaust, prompting many countries in recent years to adopt January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The recent theft of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the entrance to Auschwitz received a tremendous amount of media attention, with much public discussion of the need to preserve such a potent symbol of Nazism. Receiving far less media attention, however, are the everyday struggles today of some of the very survivors who entered Auschwitz under that sign – struggles to pay for dentures or winter heating bills, or even to leave their homes to break the lonely isolation of an old age lived in need.
Every day, the real symbols of the Holocaust are among us: the survivors, all now elderly and many increasingly struggling with the long-term health and emotional effects of the incredible deprivations and unimaginable sufferings of their youth. Tens of thousands of Jewish victims of Nazism around the world are living in need, unable to meet basic expenses or to properly care for themselves in old age.
As the world marks 65 years since the end of Auschwitz, it is the final opportunity for Germany and other European nations to shoulder the responsibility to fully care for the remaining survivors in their final years.
It is commendable that much of the world, including the United Nations, has come to mark a public day of remembrance. The sacred obligation to remember only increases as the years pass and the Holocaust recedes from memory to history. Over the decades, Germany has taken very seriously its obligation to remember. It also has acknowledged its responsibility to the victims through payments which, while they can never truly compensate for the suffering and loss, are a symbolic recognition and of real financial assistance to survivors in need. However, there are still survivors who were in camps, ghettoes and labor battalions who are not receiving ongoing payments; this must change while there is still time.
Remembrance will not provide a hot meal or pay for medicine. Last June, 47 nations gathered in Prague to address the issue of restituting lost Holocaust-era assets and caring for the survivors. A unanimous declaration was signed, committing participants to working toward these goals. Since then, little if any progress has been made.
Those European governments that have not done so must provide at least minimal restitution for the stolen assets of their former Jewish populations. This would provide both a symbolic measure of historical justice and real funds to address the growing welfare needs of those who survived.
The best way to honor the memory of the victims is to provide ample care for the survivors still with us, especially in their last years. Surely the 83-year-old woman, born in Poland, who now lives in Brooklyn with a number tattooed on her arm and limited mobility deserves additional hours from a home health aide to help her dress, shop, cook, and remember to take her medication. The frail, white-haired man in Kiev who survived Nazism by hiding in barns and holes in the ground, and who now lives without running water and has no government pension, should get additional food packages and supplies to better endure Ukraine’s bitter winter.
Currently we are faced with the intolerable situation of 26,000 Jewish Holocaust victims worldwide eating their meals in soup kitchens every day. It is painful that 65 years after Auschwitz was freed, these heroes of the Jewish people are so impoverished that they cannot buy their own food or, if they do, it is instead of medicine or rent. Their lives should not still be a struggle.
For the past 15 years, various sources of Holocaust restitution funds have funded assistance to survivors in the form of hot meals, medicine, homecare, and social programs to relieve loneliness and isolation. These funds are rapidly depleting, while Holocaust victims will be with us for at least the next decade. The best way to honor the survivors is to care for them when they need it most. Germany and the rest of Europe owes them at least that much.
Sixty-five years ago, these now-vulnerable elderly somehow managed to thwart the universal death sentence that the Nazis imposed on Europe’s Jews. They were abandoned once by the world; they should know now that they will not be abandoned again in their final years.
Julius Berman and Greg Schneider are, respectively, chairman and executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
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