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Enough Gravestones

Holocaust Remembrance Day has come and gone. The sirens have sounded, the tears have dried. The crowds at Yad VaShem and other Holocaust memorial and educational sites have thinned to average. But for those who actually lived through those indescribable times, nothing really ever changes. For survivors, the struggle to keep going, to keep the night terrors, the sadness, the tragic physical and mental ravages of those times from gaining the upper hand is a constant, year-round battle.

There are 360,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, the largest single population anywhere in the world. Two-thirds of them are elderly, one-third are child survivors. For elderly survivors who remember a time when illness, disability or weakness meant instant death, facing the normal stresses of the aging process can be traumatic. In addition to physical vulnerability, the death of aging friends and loved ones, isolation for those who lost everyone in the war, can turn old age into a living hell.

In a study undertaken by the JDC-Brookdale Institute of Gerontology and Human Development, researchers Jenny Brodsky and Yaron King found that Israel’s survivor population of 65 and over were more vulnerable than the general population, more isolated, and had more difficulty washing, dressing and feeding themselves. Yet, researchers found, the percentage receiving long-term care services was lower than that of the general population. The study also showed that significant numbers of elderly survivors were dissatisfied with their social life, that they have unmet social and emotional needs. That they were often lonely.

In the last 50 years, 500 million to one billion dollars have been spent in building Holocaust memorials whose main purpose is to serve as tombstones. Moreover, while the 1999 Directory of Associations of Holocaust Organizations lists over 150 organizations world-wide that deal with “holocaust programming, awareness, education and research,” less than a handful actually give emotional, psychological, and physical aid to survivors.

The most important of these is AMCHA, The National Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support of Survivors of the Holocaust and the Second Generation. Amazingly, AMCHA is the only organization in Israel providing a full range of psychosocial and other services to the community of Holocaust survivors and their families. This includes intensive individual and group counseling, social clubs and support groups.

Doesn’t Israel’s Mental Health Services reach out to survivors? I asked AMCHA’S dedicated executive director, John Lemberger. “Israel’s mental health clinics are for sick people,” he tells me. “Holocaust survivors are perfectly normal people who went through an abnormal situation.”

In addition to the elderly, AMCHA also serves middle-aged survivors who were children during the war. “You have 120,000 people with blurred memories, no identity, who’ve spent the last fifty years finding out their real name.”

Take Rose, for example. Rose, who was nine-years old when she was sent to England with her two sisters on the Kindertransport, came to AMCHA fifty years later following her sister’s suicide and the illness of her husband and two of her three grown children. As a result of the therapy and support she received. Rose became a volunteer herself.

And finally, AMCHA serves the needs of children trying to cope with their parents’ pain: the second generation of survivors whose upbringings may have been shaped by the form of their parents’ coping strategies – ranging from constant discussions of the horrors to absolute silence.

Despite the invaluable work it does, and the unbelievable fact that it is doing it almost alone out there, AMCHA is operating on a shoestring budget that allows it to reach only 3,000 survivors in Israel. Even with the great majority of its staff being trained volunteers, AMCHA still has had an operating budget deficit of about 250,000 NIS for each of the past two years, a fact which prevents it from reaching its kind and compassionate hand into the lives of the great majority of Israel’s survivors.

One reads in the papers all the time about the millions and millions of dollars that survivors have coming to them from the Swiss banks, and insurance companies, and Jewish properties in Eastern Europe. It is thought that a significant portion of these funds will not be returnable to living survivors and their heirs. Some have proposed dividing up the millions and giving each survivor five or six hundred dollars. Others have suggested investing it in still more Holocaust memorials and research centers. Perhaps were we 150 years after the Holocaust these suggestions would be reasonable. Given the fact that we are still coping with the damage and pain of living victims, they are not.

Let’s not build anymore tombstones to honor the dead. Instead, the time has come to help the living feel the joy of having survived. There isn’t much time left.

Let’s give AMCHA the millions. They’ll know what to do with it.

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