By Izchak Sonnenschein, Israel Hayom—
I grew up in Bnei Brak in the early 1960s, in a standard tenement apartment for those who had arrived from Eastern Europe, before the neighborhood became ultra-Orthodox.
I still remember my neighbors and relatives through my childish eyes; they seemed so old. It was hard for me to believe they had ever been children. Even the owner of the corner store seemed old to me then, and he was only 36. From where I stood, I could see the blue-green number tattooed on his frail forearm underneath his sleeve. I knew that we were not allowed to ask about that number. We also could not ask any questions about Shoshana Weiss, who would wake up in the middle of the night with desperate screams that were heard well outside her always-closed shutters. They and many others, including my parents, comprised the human landscape in the neighborhood — and over them hung a gloomy cloud, as if to declare “Holocaust survivors.” This world was revealed to me bit by bit from different perspectives suited to my age.
Over the years, there were also films and television series that helped show the world an incomprehensible time. “Shoah” in 1978, “Schindler’s List” in 1993, and of course, actress and author Gila Almagor’s autobiographical films “Aviya’s Summer” and “Under the Domim Tree.” The authentic characters of child survivors, as Almagor portrayed, found their way into our subconscious, where a difficult insight was born: That same familiar childhood landscape that had seemed so private was at the same time the collective, typical childhood landscape for my generation.
I was drawn to these films that allowed me to connect to those neighbors and relatives from a sympathetic and supportive perspective. I could see Shoshana Weiss in her childhood — a childhood lost before its time on a death march to Mauthausen concentration camp. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that one of my neighbors told me she had been a young girl when she saw bloodthirsty Nazis push her 9-year-old brother down the stairs, hurling his fragile body into the walls as she screamed desperately. The image of a boy at the top of a staircase was for her a terrifying sight that visited her repeatedly in her nightmares.
And if in the 1960s, the survivors were young, though they looked exhausted, then today, all the survivors who are still alive are senior citizens. Seniors whose childhoods were taken from them, and who can hardly see themselves as anything other than Holocaust victims. Seniors who experienced the darkest time in modern history from a child’s perspective. Who experienced being orphaned, the death of immediate and extended family members and the loss of the paradise that is childhood. They were born into hell and struggled to develop the strength that would carry them forward. They don’t remember a life without the Holocaust.
Today, as the CEO of the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, I have not forgotten and still connect with the perspective of that young boy looking from the sidelines at a childhood landscape of survivors. A boy, who as a teenager, learned of the pain felt by the silent adults who had experienced such horrors. I still remember myself as a young man, documenting Holocaust survivors in videos I produced, flooded with empathy for their losses.
Time has passed, and from my current perspective, it is clear to me that now, more than ever, a concentrated, determined effort to provide Holocaust survivors with what they need is intensely important. A a survivor we do not reach today may not be there tomorrow. The Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel sends out hundreds of volunteers who light up the lives of lonely survivors, but the home care services, efforts to make apartments accessible, vouchers and dozens of other assistance programs provided are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our personal and national debt to the 200,000 Holocaust survivors who live among us.
In a reality such as ours, in which a quarter of Holocaust survivors live off meager benefits with great difficulty, under the poverty line, we must remember that survivors are not “just” senior citizens. They are a symbol. A symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over the pain of children who saw their world destroyed, a symbol that requires of us to ensure that those remaining grow old with the dignity, calm and quality of life they deserve.
Izchak Sonnenschein is the CEO of the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel.