For decades now, the plight of thousands upon thousands of Holocaust survivors throughout the world has been getting worse and worse.
Fully recognizing the moral imperative of not abandoning these victims of Nazi persecution, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has announced a new initiative of the Obama administration to address the pressing contemporary medical and social needs of the men and women who were mercilessly persecuted by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and its accomplices.
More than 68 years after Allied troops liberated the German camps in which millions of European Jews had been ruthlessly murdered, many of those who miraculously survived live precariously, in dire circumstances.
By definition elderly — the youngest child survivors are today in their very late 60s and early 70s, and those who emerged from the Shoah as adolescents or adults are in their 80s and 90s — they are more often than not in failing health.
Deprived of the safety net of the families and communities that were destroyed, an appallingly large number — between a quarter and one third of the survivors in the United States and Israel, and a greater proportion of those in Eastern and Central Europe —also live at or below the poverty line.
The meager reparations many but not all survivors receive from Germany are utterly inadequate to enable far too many of them to live their declining years with even a modicum of comfort, let alone security. They are too often forced to choose between buying food or medication, between heating their homes in the winter or getting their glasses fixed.
At the June 2009 Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague, representatives of 46 governments emphasized “the special social and medical needs of all survivors and strongly support both public and private efforts in their respective states to enable them to live in dignity with the necessary basic care that it implies.” To their credit, President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden have now undertaken to implement these sentiments.
Addressing a meeting of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 10, Biden said the Obama administration will “appoint a special envoy to the Department of Health and Human Services charged with the mission to reach out across federal agencies to help find the kind of support that nonprofits need to effectively deliver services like home care, transportation, meal delivery and other services to these survivors living in poverty.
“This will make the government more responsive to a Hungarian survivor in the Bronx who needs a wheelchair or the elderly woman with memories of Warsaw ghetto who needs a ride to the doctor,” he said.
This is welcome news. Internationally oriented organizations that provide comprehensive assistance to the erstwhile victims of Nazi Germany such as the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany need to balance the competing needs of global survivors. It is cold comfort for survivors living in Brooklyn or South Florida to be told that the circumstances prevailing in Latvia or Ukraine are more desperate than theirs.
The new HHS special envoy will presumably focus primarily on ways to alleviate the misery and despair of individual survivors in the United States. That mandate will certainly include making sure that survivors and the organizations that serve them are able to access all available services and resources.
Perhaps the most promising aspect of Vice President Biden’s proposals is that they are eminently feasible. They are not a panacea. Nothing is or can ever be. But if promptly carried out with the unified support and participation of the American Jewish community, they could ease the lot of thousands of survivors in a meaningful way.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and a law professor. This piece was adapted from a version that first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.