It is 69 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, the marker that we often use to measure the end of the Shoah. Yet we all know that the impact of those years of terror persists in every sphere of Jewish life. As the population of survivors dwindles, those of us privileged to live in plenty are seeking to show them honor by recording their stories and preserving the memory of the vital Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis.
But there is a small population of survivors who continue to suffer the deprivation inflicted on them during the Second World War. These are the estimated 30,000 or more elderly refugees from Nazi persecution — 25 percent of those yet alive — who live in poverty. The circumstances of their lives have been noticed at the highest levels of our government. In an extraordinary move, a partnership has been proposed with the Jewish community to lift our brothers and sisters into a life of dignity in their later years.
In a speech to the American Joint Distribution Committee at their 100th anniversary gathering, Vice President Joe Biden announced the initiative. An envoy at the Department of Health and Human Services will serve as liaison to this community to ensure the survivors and the agencies that serve them are fully accessing available resources, federal and otherwise. Volunteers from the VISTA program, the oldest domestic arm of AmeriCorps, will be deployed to assist these individuals in accessing available services. And public-private partnerships will be encouraged by the administration to generate necessary funding.
I might make the argument that our community should have addressed the needs of this population ourselves. The fact is many of the survivors are virtually invisible to the social service agencies that could serve them. A significant number of them did not come to the United States immediately after the war; instead, they arrived in middle age as part of the wave of immigrants that followed the loosening of restrictions in the USSR.
Victimized first by the Nazis and then by the communists, they arrived with few language skills and minimal employment qualifications. They were unfamiliar with the culture, economy and network of organizations that make up American society. They settled into communities from similar backgrounds. Now, well into their senior years, they face the prospect of being victims again.
The willingness of the White House to notice and act on this need is not simply the result of strong advocacy by our activists. (However, it should be noted that the vice president himself was moved to act by his strong relations with the Jewish community and received full support from the president.)
There are similar populations of older people from Europe, Asia, Africa and Central and South America who face the same disadvantages as those displaced by the Holocaust. The role of government to protect the most vulnerable in society can be better fulfilled in partnership with citizens vested in compassion. The success of this effort on behalf of survivors will serve as a model for other communities. It is, compared to the vast populations in need, a micro-effort, except to the individuals themselves.
The words of Abraham Joshua Heschel are often invoked in support of grand and widely transformative efforts. His insights are most remarkable when they find the intersection between the nature of the divine and its image in the human being. In his meditation on aging, “To Grow in Wisdom,” he spoke plainly of human nature: A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable and the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.
Whether we are long-involved with this concern or relative newcomers like me, we have the opportunity to serve as examples to our own Jewish community and to the many communities that enjoy the blessings of a country that embraced the “tempest-tossed yearning to breathe free.” No amount of compensation, reparation or apology can restore to survivors what was taken from. We can, however, direct our attention to those who lack dignity and comfort because of those losses by showing them that we remember not only their past, but their present.
Rabbi Jack Moline is executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.