Frances Irwin is 90 years old. She was born in Poland and lives in Brooklyn. She is a Holocaust survivor.
Frances is lonely, even though her son takes care of her. She collects used aluminum foil in a kitchen piled high with paper plates. She relies on an emergency wristband to call for help. When you ask her to, she is able to vividly recall the worst of her World War II experience. She displays a mix of shame and trepidation when deciding whether to roll up her sleeve and show the world her forearm, tattooed at Auschwitz.
The truth is that Frances, like all Holocaust survivors, is old. Like many survivors, she’s dependent on Jewish and social welfare. She’s not living as well as she deserves to live. One day, not long from now, Frances and the others like her will die. Then there will be no more Holocaust survivors left.
Writer Ron Rosenbaum once noted in these pages that one of the greatest risks of Jewish life today is the smothering sentimentalization of our memory of the Shoah. Frances’ closing chapter offers no “meretricious uplift.” The fact that she survived Auschwitz only to suffer at the end of her life is appalling and embarrassing. These are painful things to think about, let alone say. And part of the uneasiness comes from the way wealthy and comfortable American Jews have used “remembering the Holocaust” as the touchstone of their communal existence.
When a recent, highly publicized and debated Pew study asked, “What does being Jewish mean in America today?” an astonishing 73 percent of U.S. Jews replied that “remembering the Holocaust” was “essential to their sense of Jewishness.” Another 69 percent also cited “leading an ethical life.” More than half (56 percent) said that “working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them.” To U.S. Jews, more important than any other identifying factor was this bizarre enshrinement of memory.
How then Frances?
World War II ended nearly 70 years ago. Even accounting for those who lived through the war as opposed to having directly suffered its most terrible expressions, the number of survivors still alive today across the world is probably in the low hundreds of thousands, and dwindling. Earlier this month, after an initiative announced by Vice President Joe Biden, the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging noted in a hearing on Holocaust survivors that one fourth of the roughly 140,000 survivors in America live at or below the poverty line. Some other estimates put more than half of the survivors living in the United States below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, meaning they earn less than $21,660 annually. The problem is serious enough that last week, the Obama Administration named the first Special Envoy for U.S. Holocaust Survivor Services, charged with caring for this population. “Living in poverty, plagued by immeasurable loss, they are at risk of falling into isolation and despair,” Lee Sherman, the president of the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies, told the Senate. According to Elihu Kover of Nazi Victim Services for Selfhelp Community Services, more than half of the thousands of survivors who live in New York City can be classified as “very poor” or “near poor” under federal guidelines.
At the Senate hearing, Kover put it even more starkly:
Holocaust survivors are growing older and frailer. The twenty-year-old who survived Auschwitz is now eighty-eight. She may be coping with the loss of her spouse and have no family to speak of. In addition to the myriad problems associated with so-called “normal aging,” many survivors have numerous physical and psychological problems directly attributable to their experiences during the Holocaust. Prolonged periods of starvation, exposure to severe weather conditions with inadequate clothing, and experiencing and witnessing unspeakable atrocities take a severe toll on body and mind. And many of these problems only surface in old age, having been hidden during their working years when the survivors struggled and made a new life for themselves as productive citizens of this country.
On this day in 1945, the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated by Soviet troops. In 2005, the United Nations declared Jan. 27 an international memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust. In honor of this, we asked photographer Jason Florio to take humane portraits of a small sampling of New York’s Holocaust survivors—to avoid remembering the Shoah in the abstract, and to remind our readers of the dignified specificity of each survivor’s life.
We’ve gathered nine portraits, with short audio interviews. We are not the psychiatrists of Yale’s “Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies,” facing facts for the first time. We are not Steven Spielberg or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, archiving oral and visual history. We aren’t a filmmaker, artist, or writer, grappling for years with the complicated moral, aesthetic, and historical legacy of the Shoah, like Claude Lanzmann, Art Spiegelman, or Aharon Appelfeld. We are American Jews remembering the Holocaust, without forgetting its survivors. We hope you’ll take a few minutes of your time today to do so, too.
Click here to launch Soon There Will Be No More Survivors to view portraits by Jason Florio and hear audio from Holocaust survivors in New York.