Yom Hashoah marks the remembrance of the Holocaust and is a sober reminder of the lessons we have learned from history. As we remember the atrocities committed against the Jewish people during the Holocaust and think about how to continue helping survivors, we must reject complacency.
New York City is home to an estimated 50,000 Holocaust survivors—nearly half of the survivor population in the United States. Our country received 200,000 of these refugees, who fled the violence and genocide that would have awaited them in their home countries. Some were still reeling from the harrowing experiences of surviving death camps that were designed to kill them or destroy their will to live.
But their worries did not stop once they arrived on these shores.
Even after finding shelter and making their homes here, Holocaust survivors have continued to fight the odds that are stacked against them. One of the most pressing problems they face—which often goes overlooked—is poverty.
In New York City, this issue is particularly acute: Over half of the 50,000 survivors who live in the New York metro area live on an individual income of less than $18,000. According to The Blue Card, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to Holocaust survivors, approximately one third of the 100,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States experience poverty.
Daily routines can become difficult for the aging population, and aging Holocaust survivors here in New York City are particularly impacted. Having faced the unimaginable, living through concentration camps, losing their friends and family, and then enduring the difficulty of resettling into “regular” life in America, now they must deal with a financial burden during years of their lives during which they should not have to worry about having their basic needs met.
That is why the City Council has made sure that these survivors do not have to continue living in the shadows. Last year, the council voted to rename our Holocaust Survivors Initiative in honor of Nobel laureate, human rights activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. This $2.5 million program provides Holocaust survivors living at or below the federal poverty line with a wide range of services, including preventive healthcare, medical appointment transportation, case-management support and home-delivered meals to help maintain and improve their quality of life.
We also remain focused on the safety of our Jewish communities. Recently, we have seen a spate of anti-Semitic threats and hate crimes due to the hateful rhetoric of the current administration.
Between January 1 and February 26, there was a 94 percent increase in hate crimes against Jews compared to the same period of time in 2016.
That is why the council has called on the mayor to fund a $25 million security grant program to help community centers, advocacy groups, and cultural and religious institutions defray the increased costs of increased security, surveillance and more. Unfortunately, many of these organizations, many of which are cherished parts of our communities and protect and promote identity, are at increased risk during this time.
Yom Hashoah is a day of reflection and remembrance. This year, as we mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us make sure to support the survivors who still need us. An entire generation who lost years of their lives being locked in concentration camps should not have to struggle with hunger, homelessness and illness, despite compensation payments.
As Elie Wiesel himself said, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
So let us recognize that our work does not stop here. May we always remember the power of our voices to make change, to insist upon justice, to speak out for those who struggle to be heard. Together, we will continue to work to heal the traumas of the past—whether they remain visible or not.
Melissa Mark-Viverito is the speaker of the New York City Council.