Holocaust remembrance is about honoring the living, too

In June 1943, a young Polish Jewish woman named Reva P. became the victim of Auschwitz medical experiments designed to boost the Aryan birthrate.

She was left sterile at age 21.

After the war she married and with her husband, also a survivor, found her way to America. They worked together in a small alterations shop, with little savings and few family members left alive. Three years ago, her husband died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Reva cared for him to the end.

Now our community, through Jewish Family and Children’s Services, is taking care of her. She has a heart condition and is in constant pain. JFCS caregivers help her dress and bathe, and deliver daily kosher meals. But she is not alone. JFCS volunteers have become her friends, and teens visit to record her history and learn from her.

Reva is one of 4,000 survivors living in the Bay Area, 1,000 of whom are in trouble.

Most of these survivors were in their 20s when the war ended in 1945. They came here with nothing, having lost everything. They worked hard and many did well, rebuilding their lives and families.

Now, in the final chapter of their lives, many suffer illness, live on low fixed incomes and have small families if any at all. Some have special medical and psychological needs as a result of the profound stress they experienced — trauma from which no one ever truly recovers. More than 25 percent have some form of dementia. For obvious reasons, they fear loss of control and institutionalization, taking showers, the barking of dogs. They often revert to speaking only Yiddish.

The Jewish community has done a brilliant job of commemorating one of the worst tragedies in human history. We teach its lessons, produce books and films, build extraordinary museums and memorials, instruct on the Holocaust in hundreds of schools and universities. Survivors have taught us much about what actually happened, about resilience and sensitivity to suffering.

But with each passing Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), it’s important to acknowledge that the clock is ticking. Fifteen percent of Holocaust survivors die each year. By the end of the next decade, most will be gone. The most vulnerable depend entirely on our community to be their families in their time of need.

The Jewish community is not raising enough money to care for the poorest and sickest in a proper and humane way. To do this we need to raise more funds for home health care, home-delivered kosher meals, social programs to stave off loneliness, transportation to doctor’s

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appointments, assistance for essential medicines and treatments, and specially trained staff members who understand the long-term effects of trauma and loss.

After 1945, more than 250,000 of our living witnesses to the Holocaust came to America and more than two-thirds of them have already passed away. After they arrived, they were often ignored and went about rebuilding their lives quietly without the help of the organized Jewish community. Sometimes they were shunned as weak, and characterized as having gone like sheep to slaughter. Often they were marginalized as immigrants and considered unsophisticated greenhorns who did not know American ways. Sometimes they were judged harshly and suspected of having survived by being “capos,” or collaborators.

This history often surprises Americans. The passing of time often helps us to see things more clearly. A generation later, we see survivors as heroes and write books and make movies about them. A generation later, we are trying to make it up to them. We want them to know that we value them. We want to convey that the Jewish community practices what it preaches about intergenerational responsibility, the preciousness of every human life and the need to care for our members — all of them.

The challenge of decently and lovingly caring for elderly survivors tests us. What would entitle us to call ourselves a community if we allow our most vulnerable members to live in loneliness and poverty?

Time is running out, and we need more volunteers and millions in new funding over the next seven years to do the job right.

By 2015, most of the older survivors, such as Reva P., will be gone. As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, may we remember both the lessons of the Holocaust and the heroic people who taught us those lessons.

Anita Friedman is the executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.