Our Task: To Dignify the Lives of Survivors

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June 1, 2002
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By Eva Fogelman

As American Jewry has entered the 21st cen-tury, the issue of Jewish illiteracy – a real-ity that is leading to the erosion of our very fiber – is salient. Literacy is an ingredient essential to continuity, particularly in the aftermath of a culture that was decimated in the destruction of European Jewry. No one remedy will solve the illiteracy problem, but Israel Singer’s vision for free Jewish education for every Jewish child is an approach that has the potential to ameliorate this crisis in American Jewish life.

Singer, however, is presumptuous in his plans for the future of disbursing restitution funds; in thirty years few if any of the she’herit hapleta (remnants of European Jewry – the community of survivors) will be among the living. To put it in stark terms, the body is not yet buried, and the relatives are fighting over who will get the jewelry.

If we appraise in a realistic manner the existing essential necessities of the aging survivors in our midst, than the conversation of excess funds is a moot point. Indeed, we would all like to know how much of existing funds have already been spent for “systems maintenance” rather than supporting the needs of the survivors.

My response to Singer is informed by my role as a psychologist who treats needy Holocaust survivors. They are told that because the existing funds are not sufficient to provide for their medical and housing needs, the guidelines must be written in such a way as to eliminate many such requests. Therefore, anyone who applies for funds experiences some form of humiliation and – to add injury to insult – is also “nickled and dimed” in the process.

Those who were children during the Shoah and who are now in their late fifties and early sixties, and who are not yet eligible for Medicare and cannot afford medical and dental insurance but are not below the poverty level for Medicaid, have no place to turn for help. We have created a system in which survivors continue to live in hiding. Some have no money to be members of synagogues and to attend social functions – they remain socially isolated. Monthly stipends, though modest, would make a difference to these people. Another issue: some survivors are told that their rent is too high to receive help, but alternative housing that would not further isolate them does not exist. A program of housing that takes into consideration the social as well as the economic factors is the answer.

The possibilities for dignifying the lives of survivors from any restitution funds that are unclaimed from communal property, insurance policies, bank accounts, and other assets are endless. The German pension system provides their Waffen SS with at least a two-to-four-week vacation at a spa every year. Why can’t those who make the decisions about restitution funds conceive of inspired ways to enrich the lives of survivors?

I am sure that Singer agrees with these sentiments. He too says: “our first obligation is to take care of Holocaust survivors.” So why are we talking about excess riches when there is no money to pay for survivors’ basic necessities (e.g. hearing aids, medication, dentures, transportation)?

This issue has the potential to become a vehicle for intramural conflict in which agendas that have nothing to do with the welfare of survivors are played out. We ignored the victims during the years of persecution; let us not disregard and isolate them in their waning years.

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Eva Fogelman is a psychologist in New York City, Co-director of Psychotherapy with Generations of the Holocaust and Related Traumas, Training Institute for Mental Health. She is the author of Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, writer and co-producer of "Breaking the Silence: The Generation After the Holocaust."

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