Last week, for the last days of Passover, my family visited my sister’s family in Chicago (it was their spring break). We had a wonderful time as the temperatures were warmer and the sun was shining. While walking back from the Northwestern University campus (my sister lives nearby), we stopped at a fountain and sat on a bench. An elderly woman and her husband stopped to say hello to my six year-old nephew – she is a neighbor of theirs. While stretching her arm forward to bring greetings, her sleeve rolled up and I saw a tattooed number on her arm. She was a Holocaust survivor -- originally from a small village in Czechoslovakia who ultimately became a professor at Northwestern University.
I share this story for several reasons. First, it was once again a reminder of the tragedy of the Holocaust and the resilience of the survivors. Secondly, it makes one aware that many survivors are still alive and we must do all that we can for them. Their stories must be shared so future generations always remember and the tragedy never be repeated.
Yom HaShoah was this past Wednesday night to Thursday. The full name of the day commemorating the victims of the Holocaust is Yom HaShoah Ve-HaGevurah – in Hebrew literally translated as the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism. It is marked on the 27th day in the month of Nisan – a week after the conclusion of Passover and a week before Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers).
The date marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The date was selected in a resolution passed by Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, on April 12, 1951. Although the date was established by the Israeli government, it has become a day commemorated by Jewish communities and individuals worldwide.
This past Wednesday evening, the Oregon Board of Rabbis coordinated our community’s annual Yom HaShoah program. Survivors and community members, including scores of students, participated in an evening of sharing and memory. And, on Thursday, the Jewish Federation, in partnership with the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, joined hundreds of Jewish communities around the world to perpetuate the memory of the victims of the Holocaust through the program, Unto Every Person There is a Name, a public recitation of Holocaust victims’ names, ages and birthplaces. Readers this year included public officials, clergy and community leaders, including Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and First Lady Nancy Hales.
The program was held at Pioneer Courthouse Square to provide the general public with an opportunity to remember and honor those who were victims of the Holocaust. I believe we have a moral obligation to honor the memory of those lost and educate those in our community so we never forget. Moreover, by keeping the memory of the victims alive, we fulfill one of the essential tenets of our collective Jewish experience – zachor….to remember.
Earlier this week, Yuval Bagno reported in the Jerusalem Post that in 2015 there are approximately 189,000 survivors living in Israel, two thirds of who are women. Sadly, there are no less than 45,000 survivors living under the poverty line, surviving on less than $750.00 a month according to data from the National Insurance Institute.
Studies indicate that the average age of survivors today is 83 years of age. The mortality rate of survivors continues to increase with approximately 40 survivors dying every day, an average of 14,200 each year. In 2014, approximately 490 infirm survivors died every month in comparison to the 460 and 430 in 2013 and 2012 respectively.
Approximately 36% of the survivor population in Israel live alone and have to fend for themselves. Half the survivors are widows and widowers. Approximately 65% of those in need of aid are above the age of 80 and 13% are above the age of 90. In fact, this past year 28,000 survivors in Israel received nursing care, an increase of 25% over the past three years.
In our own Portland community, we estimate there are approximately 150 survivors with the average age of 83. Last year, 113 received services from Jewish Family and Child Service. Of those, 28 Survivors received support for basic life needs (dentures, hearing aids, small home repairs, etc.) not covered by Medicare and Medicaid, through the Holocaust Survivor Emergency Assistance Program at JFCS – and numbers are increasing this year. Other services include homemaker/companion support, Café Europa social activities, emergency financial assistance, food boxes and general counseling. Moreover, sadly, 50% or more of our community’s Holocaust survivors live at or below the poverty line.
And this is just information from JFCS. Our entire community – Jewish organizations, synagogues, and individuals touch the lives of these incredible people in a variety of ways with programs and services. There are thousands of survivors still alive in this world. We have a responsibility to each and every one of them so they live their lives with dignity and comfort. That is just one way the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland enhances Jewish life in our community and beyond. Just as important as our communal services are to these special people – each of these survivors in their own way touch our lives.
As I read the newspaper and watch the news, including the rapid growth of anti-Semitism across the globe, we must NEVER FORGET! And make sure – NEVER AGAIN.