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Israel’s Starving Survivors

One in five Holocaust survivors in Israel goes hungry. We must fix this shame right away.

Liel Leibovitz
April 08, 2013
During a protest next to the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on August 5, 2007, an Israeli survivor of the Holocaust adjusts his cap, with a sticker that reads in Hebrew: "Holocaust and Shame." (Emilio Morenatti/AP)
During a protest next to the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on August 5, 2007, an Israeli survivor of the Holocaust adjusts his cap, with a sticker that reads in Hebrew: "Holocaust and Shame." (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Esther Frank survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. After the war, she moved to Israel, eventually settling in a small apartment in Petach Tikva. She worked hard her entire life, but could hardly save any money. As old age began creeping up on her, Frank found herself struggling to live on the meager pension paid to her by the state, NIS 2,000, or approximately $550, per month. For years, she walked around in clunky men’s shoes, a size too big; for 40 shekels, they were an unbeatable deal. She desperately needed a hearing aid but, not being able to afford one, continued to spend most of her days sitting alone on her small, brown couch, silent, disconnected from the world. She couldn’t even hear the burglar who sneaked in to her house, knowing that she was old and defenseless. By the time she noticed him, it was too late. There was nothing she could do. He picked up her wallet and stole 86 shekels. It was everything Frank had left. Shaken, she took to locking her front door, a jarring change after a life of leaving it wide open to welcome in friends and neighbors. Two days later, she fell. Unable to call for help, her door locked, she just lay there for hours until she finally managed to get up and reach the phone. In 2007, an Israeli television crew interviewed Frank. The piece made many people cry, and donations started pouring in. Frank could now afford a hearing aid. She was fitted for one, and was thrilled when it was finally put in. She died a few days later.

According to a survey released last week by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, 37 Holocaust survivors living in the Jewish state pass away every day. That’s more than a thousand people a month. And as the survey revealed, too many of them live, like Esther Frank, in conditions of abject poverty. One out of five survivors, for example, admitted to having had to forgo food at least once due to lack of funds, and 14 percent said that their financial situation led them to give up on purchasing necessary medicine. A quarter of the survivors replied that they were struggling with poverty, and a third had applied to the foundation, seeking financial aid. The overwhelming majority—more than two-thirds—reported monthly incomes no larger than NIS 3,000, or $830. The median salary in Israel is around $1,550.

In part, bureaucracy’s to blame for this negligence. No fewer than seven different government ministries are entrusted with providing basic services to the 192,000 Holocaust survivors currently living in Israel, and a slew of nonprofit organizations all work to supply them with anything from food to medical services. But lacking a single organized framework and a clear hierarchy, many of the efforts overlap, and most survivors remain uninformed of their basic rights. Esther Frank, for example, was eligible to additional benefits, but neither she nor the Social Security representatives with whom she was in touch had any idea. By the time someone noticed her, it was too late.

And time, the foundation in Israel said in a statement, is running out. “We’re facing a critical window that’s closing on us,” said an official statement. “In five years, the demographic balance will change in a way that would make aid to survivors unnecessary, as there will be more of them dying than living and in need of assistance.”

Walking around his neighborhood in Be’er Sheva last winter, a university student named Ido Doav saw a small elderly woman shivering in the cold. It was raining, and the woman turned to Doav, told him she was very tired, and asked for his help climbing the stairs to her apartment. As Doav took her arm, he noticed the faint inky numbers, marking her as a Holocaust survivor. When he opened the door to her apartment, he was shocked: Mice were running around freely, the floor was smeared with feces, and every surface was covered with years’ worth of grime. Doav called a few of his friends, and together they spent hours scrubbing the woman’s apartment. “I’ve never done anyone any harm,” the woman, who preferred to remain nameless, told a television crew that arrived to interview her. “I would at least like for my home to be clean.”

A clean home, a warm meal, medicine, a hearing aid, comfortable shoes—none of these are luxuries. They are basic, fundamental rights. And they’re even more basic, more fundamental when the recipients in question are survivors of the Shoah living in the Jewish state. It is Israel’s duty, of course, to rectify this injustice, but it is also up to Jews anywhere to see to it that this is done right away. I know that effective charitable giving is a complicated matter. I realize there are complicated organizational question at play. But I don’t care. At the risk of sounding simplistic or bombastic or overly sentimental, every dollar, every shekel, anyone anywhere gives to any Jewish organization is rendered meaningless by the rumbling stomach of a single elderly survivor of the Holocaust. If you do anything today to mark Yom HaShoah—light a candle, go to a film, even share this article—make this call to action part of it.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.