let's talk about Holocaust survivors

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

The Holocaust was the systematic genocide of 6 million Jews and 1-1.5 million Roma by the Nazis and their collaborators during WWII.

Today commemorates the date in which the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviet troops in 1945. 1.1-1.6 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, nearly one million of them Jews. 

Today, lots will be said about the Holocaust and Auschwitz-Birkenau. But I want to talk about something different. I want to talk about Holocaust survivors, because not only are their stories harrowing, but the way in which they’ve been treated since the Holocaust is abysmal. 

 

WHO SURVIVED THE HOLOCAUST?

Prior to the Nazi ascent to power in 1933, 9.5 million Jewish People lived in Europe. The worldwide Jewish population stood at ~15.3 million (today, 7 decades after WWII, our population has yet to recover, with only ~14.7 million Jews in the world today). 

Out of that 9.5 million, 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. (Additionally, thousands of Jews were murdered in North Africa). 

Jewish communities in Eastern Europe suffered the worst losses. For instance, 90% of Poland’s Jewish population and 95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population were exterminated.

(A note: as I am not Romani, I don’t feel comfortable speaking for Romani survivors. Please follow @romaniuprising and @roma.culture for more info)

 

DISPLACED PERSONS CAMPS

After the end of the war, Europe experienced the worst refugee crisis in history up until that point in time. 

Between 1945-1952, over 250,000 Jewish survivors were held in refugee camps known as Displaced Persons Camps. Many of these camps were just repurposed concentration camps. For instance, Bergen-Belsen was turned into a refugee camp. 

Visas to emigrate outside of Europe were extremely limited, worsening the refugee crisis.

Conditions at the camps were terrible. Some main issues were the lack of professionally trained staff as well as lack of medical supplies, food, and clothing. Disease was also a major concern. 

 

END OF DP CAMPS 

Even after the end of WWII, most nations prohibited or severely restricted Jewish immigration. Immigration to the United States was very limited, and British Mandatory Palestine banned Jewish immigration altogether at the behest of the Arab Higher Committee. Jews who tried to return to their old homes in Europe were murdered by squatters. 

The situation was only alleviated after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the American Displaced Persons Act in 1948*. 80,000 Jewish DPs immigrated to the United States, while another 136,000 immigrated to Israel. Overall, Israel absorbed ~373,000 Holocaust survivors by 1952. 

*initially the Act was highly antisemitic but was later amended 

 

MISTREATMENT 

Unbelievably, in the early years after the Holocaust, survivors were highly mistreated within the Jewish world at large. In Israel in particular, Holocaust survivors endured terrible mockery and discrimination.*

Many Israelis saw Holocaust survivors as complicit in their own suffering, believing that they hadn’t done enough to fight back. They were seen as weak, rather than the strong Israeli ideal. Survivors were derogatorily called “soap,” as the Germans had possibly made soap out of dead Jewish bodies. 

It wasn’t until the highly publicized Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961 that Israelis came to understand the true horrors of the Holocaust. 

*if you use this to bring up I/P or delegitimize Jewish connection to Israel I will block you. The world isn’t a black and white binary. 

 

“REPARATIONS”

Much has been said about German “reparations” to Holocaust survivors. The truth is much more complicated than it seems. Most Holocaust survivors have never received a cent.

In 1952, Israel and West Germany signed a reparations agreement, primarily to assist with the resettling of Holocaust refugees in Israel. The agreement was the subject of great controversy, as many Israelis considered it to be “blood money.” 

However, after resettling nearly a million refugees from the Middle East and North Africa and nearly half a million Holocaust survivors, as well as the 1947-1949 War of Independence, Israel was in dire need of economic assistance, so the deal was signed. 

About 41% of this money is supposed to go to Israeli Holocaust survivors. However, instead of receiving it directly, the money is funneled through an agency. Survivors haven’t received what was promised to them.

This also doesn’t take into account that other countries besides Germany seized Jewish assets and benefitted financially from the Holocaust. Additionally, not all Holocaust survivors live in Israel. 

 

TRAUMA 

Holocaust survivors started displaying signs of PTSD as soon as the war was over. 

A 2000 National Institutes of Health study showed 47-55% of Holocaust survivors still suffered from PTSD, in addition to depression, high suicide risk, schizophrenia, and “late-life paranoia.” 

Second and third generation Holocaust survivors also suffer from intergenerational trauma. 

Interestingly, studies have found Israeli Holocaust survivors display better mental health than survivors living elsewhere.

 

POVERTY 

One of the most concerning issues regarding the aging Holocaust survivor population is poverty. In Israel, 25% of Holocaust survivors live under the poverty line. One-third of Holocaust survivors in the United States are poor. 

Some areas in the United States have even worse figures. In Cleveland, 70% of survivors are poor. In New York State, where most survivors are located, 40% live in poverty.