By Meredith Rose Burak, chair of Public-Private Partnerships of the Survivor Initiative; and New York City Council Member Rafael L. Espinal
“From firsthand experience, I can tell you that hate, racism and anti-Semitism lead to destruction,” said Sonia Klein, a Holocaust survivor. She stood on the steps of City Hall with us back in 2015 as we called on the city to heed the needs of the tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors living in poverty.
Klein was only 14 years old when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939. She survived 10 years in a Warsaw ghetto, four concentration camps and a death march while the rest of her family perished in the Holocaust, along with 12 million others, six million of them Jewish.
Klein was one of the lucky ones—not only because she survived, but because she is in a position to advocate on behalf of the city’s 30,000 impoverished Holocaust survivors, who face their remaining days alone, fearful and hungry. Today, 60,000-70,000 Holocaust survivors continue to live in New York City, the embodiment of remembrance we should treasure. Sadly, nearly half of them are living at or below the federal poverty line.
On a daily basis, these survivors are forced to decide whether to pay their rent, fill a prescription, get transportation to a doctor’s appointment or buy food. Survivors have an average need of around $5,000 per year to cover financial gaps and healthcare costs.
Studies have found that survivors face a higher rate of chronic and acute illness, including cancer and heart disease, from years of exposure to severe famine and stress during the war.
Despite a subsequent life out in the world, working and raising families and being active in civic life, survivors’ old age presents difficulties different from those of their peers who have not endured the horrors of so many years ago. Given their average age of 85, we cannot delay in helping them because there is no time left.
To make the needs of survivors a priority for our city, we established a public/private partnership between the Survivor Initiative—a national volunteer-led effort that reaches across generations to raise awareness and funds for impoverished Holocaust survivors—and the New York City Council to secure $1.5 million from the municipal budget for the city’s survivors living near, at or below the poverty line. This funding was spread across 15 nonprofit organizations throughout the five boroughs—groups on the frontlines providing critically important basic services to as many survivors as possible.
We are proud to report that due to the great success of the program in N.Y.C. and our continued advocacy to do more for survivors, we have been able to continually increase funding since the start of the program. Since 2015, this funding has increased year after year, with $2.5 million secured in FY2017. In this year’s budget we were able to increase the funding to $3 million—for a total of $7 million allocated to these survivors—to finally help give them the break they so rightfully deserve, and to let the world know that, here in New York, we don’t stand idly by; we take action.
Addressing the needs of impoverished survivors is the moral thing to do, and also makes our society safer. We cannot change the past. However, we correct past horrors by helping the living while honoring the dead.
The process of helping the living also reminds us about what humanity is capable of, especially in the face of neutrality, as dangerous a space as hostility itself. Now more than ever, local individuals and groups must collaborate to stand up against injustices—both at home and abroad—and to address our community’s most pressing issues: Think global; act local.
New York is an axis on which the world moves. Many great cities are. As such, we have to act as a shining light of the nation on all matters of justice, from the environment to the treatment of our immigrant communities and everything in between.
Aiding impoverished Holocaust survivors sends a message to the world that when we say “Never Again,” we mean it. As a nation, we have a responsibility to protect those most vulnerable among us. These survivors—after their incarceration, after their displacement, after experiencing unspeakable horror—surely meet that definition.
“Never Again” must be an aspiration that the representatives of this country embrace and make their own. We can either see it as “each against each,” as the Nazis saw it, or we can be “each for each and all for all.”
We don’t have much time to provide the necessary basic assistance for these aging survivors. We need leaders, non-Jewish and Jewish alike, from the private sector and from all levels of government, to be a voice for these voiceless citizens, so they may spend their remaining days in peace and with the dignity they deserve.