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Holocaust Survivors in Israel – Living Symbols of Poverty

We have a special obligation to see to the welfare of Holocaust survivors. The government has provided additional resources to be used in caring for their well being and medical needs, and we will provide, willingly, whatever more is needed. Holocaust survivors are a symbol of our revival. They, who endured the Holocaust, deserve to live their remaining days in peace and contentment. Binyamin Netanyahu, Shraga Cahanov, “Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Speech at Opening Ceremony for Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day at Yad Veshem” (News Flashes and Pictures, 8.4.13).

My dear ones, Holocaust survivors […], Israel glorifies heroism but does not always bestow sufficient honor upon the heroes themselves. It is time. Not always have we taken care to hear their heartbeat, to provide for their sustenance and health. It is time to correct this. Shimon Peres, “Lost Assets, Preserved Values. Presidential Speech at Ceremony for Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day at Yad Veshem” (News1, 7.4.13).

The generosity of hand and heart conveyed by Netanyahu, and the concern expressed by Peres, accurately reflect the fervor felt by many in Israel. According to a report published by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel in April 2014, one of every four Israeli Holocaust survivors lives in poverty. In a survey of 400 survivors conducted by the Foundation, one out of five noted that they were forced to choose between medication and food during the last two years due to economic hardship, and half reported suffering from loneliness. Over one third approached the Foundation last year to request assistance; most of these fall into the Ministry of Finance’s ‘needy’ category. Omri Ephraim, “50,000 Poor Holocaust Survivors Ask: How Long We Still Live?” (Ynet, Yediot Aharonot, 23.4.2014).

Where are the funds, asks the Israeli artist Chertkoff at an art exhibit of this title. He states, “The State assetizes the Holocaust narrative but has abandoned the Holocaust survivors!”. Shai Perdo, Otzar, “Where are the Funds: Sergio Daniel Chertkoff,” ‘Kan’ – Israeli Reality in Art, 31 (2014): 38-39.

Some of these troubling questions have equally troubling answers:

When the reparations agreement with Germany was signed in 1952, Israel placed the needs of the new State above the needs of the survivors. The German funds were used to build the country and absorb refugees, and Israel, in the name of the survivors, waived any further claims against Germany. This precluded the possibility of personal injury claims by Israeli survivors, unlike their fellow survivors living anywhere else in the world. The struggle for legislation to compensate deprived Holocaust victims continues to this day. Israel left the matter of personal claims against Germany to private organizations, which opened the way for a thriving industry of public and private bodies that profit at the expense of the survivors. Israel even held, illegally, property and monetary assets that had been invested in the country in the 1920s and 1930s. Yossi Katz, At the Expense of the Victims – New Studies in the Reparations Agreement, Personal Reparations and Return of Property to Victims Residing in Israel (Israel, 2009). Both Israel and Germany posed bureaucratic obstacles, turned the claimants into defendants and wore them down with demands of proof of their status as victims. Raul Teitelbaum, The Biological Solution – the Scandal of Personal Reparations to Holocaust Survivors (Tel Aviv, 2008): 106-119. Thus, a paradoxical systematic neglect of those considered to be Israel’s most cherished citizens, the symbol of the revival of the Jewish People – the survivors.

The paradox remains unexplained. Logic dictates that “a country’s budget reflects its values – who it values, whose work it values, and whom it decides to remunerate…” Rhonda Sharp & Ray Broomhill, “Budgeting for Equality: The Australian Experience,” Feminist Economics 8:1 (2002): 25-27, 26. Why, then, does Israel not devote appropriate resources towards supporting its Holocaust survivors? In this article I wish to offer a new perspective that may resolve the paradox: it is possible that societal neglect is precisely what turns the survivors into living symbols.

“The mythical structure,” writes historian Yael Zerubavel, “thus reinforces the primacy of the ideological message over historical accuracy and enhances the symbolic significance of the event, beyond the historical constraints of a specific time and place.” Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots. Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (Chicago, 1995): 216. In other words, the symbolization detaches the public from the mundane details and blurs them. In the same vein, anthropologist and researcher of religion Mircea Eliade states that the only way for the collective memory to preserve historical and individual events is to turn them into archetypes, canceling their historic and personal uniqueness. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return or, Cosmos and History (New York, 1959): 46. Symbolism, as an act of abstraction and generalization, works against the concrete and detailed character of individuation. The symbol is elevated, far above the realm of the earthly and the mundane, and the object of the symbol is inaccessible. Thus, Avishai Margalit describes the moral witness as being on a high spiritual level, making him a moral force. Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge, 2002): 178: “While we do not invest the moral witness with traditional authority, we seem to endow him with a special sort of charisma. The charisma comes from having a special kind of experience which is elevated to some sort of high spirituality that makes the witness a moral force.”

The following, from a student’s journal written on a trip to Poland, demonstrates the trend of symbolization:

We met our witness, Pinchas, who is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. He told us a bit about his life during the Shoah. There are people who are so brave and strong. I’m sure that those who perished also had hope and were strong, but sometimes even the strong fall. Anonymous Journal, Journey to Poland, June 18-25, 2006.

Pinchas the survivor witness is a living symbol and so he is stripped of his human, prosaic qualities and is made into a hero.

The symbolic status of the survivors is completely detached from all responsibility towards their welfare. This is exemplified in the following story:

After Hanna, a survivor, gave testimony in Majdanek, the young people ran back to the bus to escape the freezing cold, leaving her alone by the memorial. Only when not all were accounted for on the bus did they realize her absence. Hanna slipped and fell on the ice, and was taken to the hospital in an unconscious state, having fractured her skull. Her son looked after her for three weeks and brought her back home to Israel. In the lengthy court case that resulted, the Ministry of Education disavowed all responsibility: “The claimant is an adult and freely made the choice to accompany this mission to Poland. She was not entitled to an escort…She was not alert and did not exercise caution to avoid an accident,…and did not request assistance.” Orly Vilnai, “Ministry of Education vs. Hanna, witness left injured at Majdanek” (Ha’aretz, 28.5.14).

Let us dwell for a moment on the behavior of those on the mission. The picture is clear: The shackling of the survivors to the status of living symbols gives rise to a tendency to think of them as intangible and abstract. This blurs their earthly needs and leads us to keep our distance while we maintain our sense of awe – obliterating any need to take practical responsibility for them.

In actuality, the idea – that transformation of Holocaust survivors into symbols is a guarantee of their careful preservation by the State – is mistaken. The mythification process actually supports the opposite of what one might expect.

Still, there is cause for optimism. In the last decade, Israeli society has shown an interest in the lives and practical needs of its heroes, the survivors, and has proved willing to fight to secure a comfortable existence for them. In 2002, former MK Colette Avital established a panel of inquiry that sought to locate and return assets taken from Holocaust victims to their rightful owners. In the wake of the panel’s conclusions in 2005, legislation was enacted to establish an official body dedicated to the restoration of property to the victims. Today, Ms. Avital heads an umbrella organization recognized since 2010 as the central body representing all Holocaust survivors in Israel.

In the popular domain, a turning point came in 2007, when at a Holocaust Memorial ceremony, hundreds of students and youth demonstrated at the Knesset to protest government handling of stipends for survivors, carrying banners that read “the March of the Living is here”. Yair Ettinger, “Hundreds Protest at Knesset against poor economic situation of Holocaust Survivors” (The Marker, 16.4.14).

The inquiry carried out by Orly Vilnai-Federbush and Guy Meroz entitled “Moral Reparations” sparked a public outcry. New public awareness and protest led, and continue to lead, to new legislation and allocation of resources, including an aid package for survivors approved in 2014 in the amount of one billion shekels a year. Adrian Filut, “Government Approves 1 billion increase in aid to Holocaust survivors” (Globes, 27.4.14).

It should be noted that beyond the public pressure brought to improve the plight of the survivors, we are witness to a number of social initiatives that foster direct and personal contact between survivors and students, soldiers and schoolchildren. In this way, survivors are not limited to the realm of testimonials on trips to Poland. This, I believe, is a ‘post-symbol’ trend; an Israeli choice to strip away the holy layer of living symbol, to look squarely at flesh and blood individuals, and to make them our business. Following is a quote from a young man, in early 2014, calling us to take part in a program for Holocaust survivors in Kiryat Yam:

Today I met Moshe, an 81 year old survivor who lives alone in a small, old apartment in Kiryat Yam. Moshe barely survived the Holocaust, and today he barely survives daily living….He says he has a son who has no time for him…”Being alone is the hardest thing in the world, all my family and friends have passed away and I am left alone…” Those interested in volunteering one hour a week to spend with a lonely Holocaust survivor like Moshe should call us and we will match them with a survivor. – Tomer.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.

Dr. Galia Glasner Heled, a social psychologist, is a lecturer and the academic advisor for the M.A. programs in Contemporary Jewry and Family and Community Studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Galia Glasner Heled directs the Community Management in the Spirit of Judaism MA track and is the academic consultant for the Mishlei program. She teaches courses in the Contemporary Jewry and in Family and Community Studies.  Dr. Glasner Heled received her MA in clinical psychology and her PhD in social psychology from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. She writes about questions of identity and memory in Israeli society, particularly about the memory of the Holocaust in Israel. She lives in Kiriat-Ono.

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