Holocaust survivors do not need annual ceremonies to remind them of the Nazi atrocities that they endured or of the family members that Adolf Hitler’s henchmen slaughtered during World War II. No, those memories are just as inked in their hearts and minds as the numbers tattooed on their forearms.
Indeed, it is not those people who require the admonition “Never Forget,” but rather the rest of the world. It is also a mantra for subsequent generations of Jews to repeat and forge a collective memory of events that we did not experience firsthand, but which require our ongoing attention. If, that is, we are to recognize and combat anti-Semitism in all its ideological—and military—manifestations.
The Knesset thus ruled in 1951 that Holocaust Remembrance Day would be marked on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan, which falls between Passover and Israel Independence Day—two celebrations of freedom, victory and a return to the Jewish homeland.
In Israel, then, Yom Hashoah is particularly significant. Not only was the Jewish state established in the wake of the Holocaust, but many survivors fought and were killed in the 1948 War of Independence.
Their stories of unparalleled heroism in spite of unfathomable victimhood are recounted each year at the main ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on the eve of Yom Hashoah and at other locations during the following 24 hours. On the day itself, everyone in the country stops in his/her tracks at the sound of a siren to stand in silence for two minutes.
But not this year.
Thanks to coronavirus lockdowns—the emphasis of which ostensibly is to protect the elderly—the ceremonies are void of participants. With the exception of speeches by prominent politicians and performances by singers to empty halls, all commemorations and survivor testimonies have been held online and televised.
What makes this especially sad is the fact that the aging survivors—most of whom are not adept at Internet communication—have been living in isolation for weeks as it is. One survivor told Channel 12 on Monday evening that the hardest part about being alone is the lack of distraction from his daily traumatic memories. He explained that without people around, he finds it harder to push away the ghosts of his past.
One would think, then, that he and others like him would dread Yom Hashoah. In fact, however, it is a day when the aging survivors—many of whom are widowed or have no offspring—welcome contact with the outside world. It is an opportunity for them to meet one another, while being honored and, above all, heard.
To such people, who tend to be in their 80s and 90s, the onset of COVID-19 has dealt an especially severe blow. Aside from belonging to the highest-risk category where corona is concerned (the first Israeli to die of the virus, on March 20, was 88-year-old Aryeh Even, a survivor from Hungary), their inability to go outside for fresh air and companionship is taking an emotional toll.
“I am lonely,” one survivor told Channel 12 earlier this month. “When I suffer from this loneliness, I get a panic attack. I sit in a room with nobody to talk to. [Before], there was always someone to talk to. I have friends. But now … everyone stays inside their homes and I am alone. … It’s very hard for me.”
Holocaust survivors are not a uniform group, however. On the contrary, some are affluent, while others subsist on meager pensions or are actually poverty-stricken. Some have large families, while others have no one around to check in on them. And some are more optimistic in their outlook than others. When asked, for example, whether the coronavirus closures evoke memories of the Holocaust, a Buchenwald survivor scoffed at the very suggestion.
“To compare that miserable situation to today’s?” he asked rhetorically. “You’re home? You have a blanket? You have something to eat? Nobody’s beating you? … [This] isn’t so bad.”
What is bad is the realization that by next Holocaust Remembrance Day, there will be far fewer of the 189,500 survivors left in the Jewish state to tell their tales.
According to data released this week by the Israeli Finance Ministry’s Holocaust Survivors Rights Authority, more than 15,000 survivors died over the past year, amounting to approximately 41 per day.
This figure, though unfortunate, makes sense, since 77 percent of the remaining survivors are over the age of 80; 16 percent are in their 90s; and 800 are older than 100.
In other words, even without the outbreak of COVID-19, the number of people who emerged from the ashes of the Nazi genocide is dwindling. It’s not clear to what extent the virus will have played a part in the statistics.
It is this that Israelis should “never forget,” especially now, when all the survivors—other than the ones cherry-picked for TV highlights—are literally out of sight.
No matter what they do until the day they die, the Holocaust is and will be on their minds. The rest of us cannot say the same.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”