“Hear my prayer, Lord; let my cry for help come to You…. In my distress I groan aloud and am reduced to skin and bones.” (Psalm 102:1, 5)
Today is Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day), which is also known as Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Although the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) set the date for this Israeli day of remembrance in 1951, Yom HaShoah has become an international day of mourning and it is now commemorated throughout the world.
Here in Israel, it is a national day of mourning for the genocide of the Jewish People in Europe and the resistance fighters who stood up to the Nazis.
Last night at 8 p.m. and again this morning at 11 a.m., in cities and communities throughout Israel, men, women, and children of all ages stood at attention as the woeful cry of the sirens blasted throughout the farthest reaches of the country, reminding all of the catastrophic number of Jewish dead in the Shoah (Holocaust).
For two minutes the entire nation stood in silence in honor of the six million who were slaughtered by the Nazis and their collaborators.
Last night, at a Yom HaShoah state ceremony at Yad VaShem (Holocaust Memorial Museum) in honor of the six million who perished in the Holocaust, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated:
“Why, in the years preceding the Holocaust, did the overwhelming majority of world leaders and Jewish leaders fail to detect the danger in time? In retrospect, all the warning signs were there: the strengthening of the Nazi regime year after year; the horrific anti-Semitic propaganda which grew stronger with each passing month; and the murderous attacks on Jews which began as a trickle and transformed into a huge wave.
“The bitter and tragic truth is this: it is not that they did not see it. They did not want to see it. And why did they choose not to see the truth? Because they did not want to face the consequences of that truth.”
A Knesset law passed in 1959 obligates citizens to recognize the victims of the Shoah and ghetto uprisings in public observance on this day.
Programs are organized throughout the country in which survivors tell their stories, and both radio and TV programming is totally devoted to testimonies of survivors, as well as films depicting the atrocities.
Even musical programs spotlight the theme of human suffering, maintaining the Yom HaShoah atmosphere. Throughout the country, all theaters, cafes, movie houses and other forms of entertainment are closed.
This effort by the government has done much to educate the population regarding the sufferings of the survivors, which extend beyond the Holocaust itself.
This year’s theme for Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day 2014 is Jews “On the Edge”—1944: Between Annihilation and Liberation, which reflects the situation of the Jews in 1944–exactly 70 years ago.
The Shoah and Its After-Effects
Survivors have suffered not only from the effects of the Shoah itself, but in many cases from its after-effects.
Many who returned to their homes following life in the camps were met with pogroms and often killed.
This occurred mostly in eastern European countries such as Poland where their property had been taken from them. Those who had taken that property, or purchased it from those had taken it, were determined to keep it.
A great number of survivors found themselves as refugees in displaced persons camps. Others suffered the rigors of illegal immigration into pre-state Israel.
This led in many cases to a form of Konzentration Lager (German for concentration camp) Syndrome that is similar to many of the symptoms today associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
For example, several studies following the war showed that survivors demonstrated higher scores on the index of emotional distress than comparable groups.
In a study that was carried out in Israel and published in 2009 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, it was found that anxiety disorders, emotional distress and sleep disturbances were more frequent among Holocaust survivors than among a comparable group.
The years since the Holocaust have remained challenging for survivors who deal with both emotional and mental scars, in addition to economic woes.
During and after the Holocaust, some of the few remaining victims made it to Israel as it was being birthed as an independent, modern-day state.
Just hours after their arrival, many of them died fighting for the survival of the new nation in the battle for a British police fort that had been turned over to the Arabs—Latrun.
The Haganah (original Israeli military force from 1920–1948) formed a new unit, the 7th Brigade, which consisted mostly of Holocaust survivors, some of whom had never fired a weapon.
They were given the task of taking the fort in order to break the blockade of Jerusalem held by Jordan’s Arab Legion.
At that time, 20-year-old Ariel “Arik” Sharon, who still went by the name of Scheinerman, commanded the 1st Platoon of B Company of the 32nd Battalion, the only fighting force to have previously seen battle.
In a letter written by Sharon to his parents before the battle, he describes a convoy of fresh troops arriving in the olive grove where they awaited orders to attack.
“Suddenly a convoy of trucks stopped next to us and unloaded new, foreign-looking recruits,” writes Sharon. “They looked slightly pale, and were wearing sleeveless sweaters, gray pants, and striped shirts. A stream of languages filled the air, names like Herschel and Yazek, Jan and Maitek were thrown around. They stuck out against the backdrop of olives, rocks, and yellowing grains. They’d come to us through blocked borders, from Europe’s death camps.”
He chronicles how they fumbled with their new uniforms, trying to suit up.
“They did this in silence, as though they had made their peace with fate. Not one of them cried out: ‘Let us at least breathe the free air after the years of terrible suffering.’ It is as if they’d come to the conclusion that this is one final battle for the future of the Jewish people.”
At five in the morning, Sharon led his troops out of the olive grove and into a blaze of withering fire. By one that afternoon, half of his platoon was dead and most of the others were wounded.
When Sharon was shot in the abdomen, another wounded soldier dragged him to safety.
Later in the afternoon, Sharon’s unit was cut off and surrounded as the rest of the brigade retreated, leaving many wounded in the field who were butchered by the surrounding Palestinian villagers. (Times of Israel)
Born in 1928 in pre-state Israel, Ariel Sharon participated in most of the crucial moments in modern Israel’s creation, defense, and leadership. He passed away in January of this year.
The Remarkable Resilience of Holocaust Survivors
“Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1–2)
Pogroms, loss of property, and war against the Jews in Israel were not the only ways survivors suffered: they were looked down upon in Israel.
Initially, they were viewed as weak since they “allowed themselves” to become victims.
To combat this form of ignorance, Israel introduced curricula in the education system that emphasized the sufferings inflicted on millions of European Jews during World War II.
Still, surveys from the late 50s showed that Israeli youth were not sympathetic toward Holocaust victims, believing that they had been “led like sheep to the slaughter.”
In response, Israel’s curriculum began to show that European Jews maintained their humanity under unbearable conditions. They had resisted the Nazis through passive resistance, as well as through active resistance by fighting them in ghettos and joining with partisans who resisted the Third Reich in the occupied countries.
Although it is true that surviving the Holocaust brings with it many challenges to life in general, a current study by researchers at the University of Haifa and Leiden University (the Netherlands) reveals that men who survived the Holocaust live longer than a similar group that did not go through the war.
The study examined 55,000 Polish Jewish men who immigrated to Israel before and after World War II.
Under the direction of Professor Avi Sagi-Schwartz of the University of Haifa’s psychology department and head of its Center for the Study of Child Development, the study found that the drive to survive among those that made it through seems to have resulted in a longer life expectancy.
Sagi-Schwartz said, “Holocaust survivors not only suffered grave psychosocial trauma but also famine, malnutrition, and lack of hygienic and medical facilities, leading us to believe these damaged their later health and reduced life expectancy.” (JPost)
But that may not be the case.
According to Sagi-Schwartz, “Men who were 10 to 15 years old during the war and in their early adolescence showed a 10-months-longer life expectancy than the comparison group.
Men who lived through the Holocaust when they were 16 to 20 showed an even greater difference in life expectancy—18 months longer—than their peers who didn’t experience the Holocaust.”
The researchers believe that the psychological stress suffered by survivors following the war may have served as a stimulus for the development of personal and interpersonal skills and helped them to gain greater insight into the meaning of life.
All of this, they argue, may have also contributed to their greater longevity.
“The results of this research give us hope and teach us quite a bit about the resilience of the human spirit when faced with brutal and traumatic events,”Sagi-Schwartz concluded. (JPost)
Still, one Holocaust survivor dies every 45 minutes in Israel. Over a thousand survivors die each month.
Tough Living Conditions in Israel
About 193,000 survivors, whose average age is is 85, currently live in Israel. More than a quarter of them live below the poverty line, according to a study by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel.
The numbers of those living in poverty are growing, with some 60% of them experiencing financial hardship. (Times of Israel)
Of those who applied for financial assistance, 86% live on less than NIS 5,000 ($1,432) per month and of those, 60% live on less than NIS 3,000 ($860).
Also, increasingly, Holocaust survivors need nursing assistance.
Unfortunately, against a backdrop of ever-increasing cuts in government spending, many areas of Israeli society are suffering increased need and diminished government support, including the needs of Holocaust survivors.
Last April, at a Knesset Health and Welfare meeting called to examine the problem, one 83-year-old Shoah survivor, Dora Roth, who endured WWII Europe as a child and immigrated to Israel in 1952 after losing her family, blasted the government saying, “Seeing a Holocaust survivor who can’t afford to heat his home in the winter and can’t afford to buy food or medicine is your disgrace. I don’t care about your committees. They mean nothing to us. I came all the way here to ask you one thing: Let us die in dignity.”
Speaking of the survivors’ “bleak reality,” the foundation’s general manager Rony Kalinsky said, “We have a very small window of opportunity, about five years, to ensure that the Holocaust survivors live their lives in dignity. As of today, the survivors are sicker, lonelier, poorer, and unfortunately their number continues to diminish.” (YNet)
Yesterday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Cabinet is due to approve a national plan to assist Holocaust survivors.
He told the Cabinet, “We have a moral obligation to see to it that Holocaust survivors living among us can live out their lives honorably. We [also] have the supreme national responsibility of preventing another Holocaust; let us do both.”