Our last chance to learn from Shoah survivors

Our last chance to learn from Shoah survivors

Claims Conference demographic study shows how many are left, where they live, and what they need

There are now about 245,000 living Holocaust survivors.

That’s about half the number there were in 2000.

The youngest of them — born in 1946, according to the definition the Claims Conference uses — will turn 78 this year; those youngest survivors were born after the camps were liberated and can have no firsthand memories of them. Eleven percent of survivors are 95 or older, and the oldest are over 100. Their average age is 86; most of them were children at the war’s end. The oldest of those child survivors were born in 1928.

These statistics and many more come from the Claims Conference — to give the group its full name, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — which has released a demographic study on the survivors.

To be clear, these statistics are not surprising. Common sense says that a cohort whose youngest members were born in 1946 must be shrinking in 2024.

The report also shows that the survivors live in 90 countries; 49 percent of them are in Israel and 16 percent are in the United States. There are other clusters — 90 percent live in 10 countries — and then there are the survivors in far-flung places, sole remnants of the group. Sixty-one percent of the survivors are women, most likely because women tend to live longer than men, but probably also because so many Jewish men, like their non-Jewish counterparts, were conscripted into the Red Army and died there.

The Claims Conference uses the definition of survivor it has negotiated with the German government, rather than the narrower ones it had used as the negotiations evolved over decades. Now, the word is applied not only to people who lived through concentration camps or as partisans in the woods or caves or basements, but also to “anybody who lived under Nazi occupation or fled from territory that was subsequently occupied,” Greg Schneider, the Claim Conference’s executive vice president, said.

Greg Schneider

It includes fetuses born to mothers who had become pregnant while in the camps — that’s why some survivors were born nine months after camps were liberated in 1945 — and it reaches beyond Europe to include Algerian Jews and others imprisoned in camps in North Africa. Some of the survivors live in Russia and Ukraine, war-torn countries they cannot leave, finding it increasingly hard to get the kind of support they need.

Many of the survivors are poor. The Claims Conference works with the relevant governments to provide them with the social and medical services they need.

“This data is important to us because we use it in our negotiations with the German government, to understand who is alive, where they live, what their level of poverty is, and what they need, particularly health care,” Mr. Schneider said. Often people’s needs intensify when they’re around 85, making it particularly relevant right now.

“When we know that the median age for survivors is 86, therefore, it concretizes that this is our last chance to take care of them.”

And then there’s the other side. “We get much more from survivors than we give them,” Mr. Schneider said. “There is the story of their persecution,” which includes examples of how hard words lead to harsher words and then escalate to violence. “They tell us stories like we had friends in school, and then one day one of those friends calls me a dirty Jew, or his mother says that I’m not allowed to play with him anymore and says ‘Get out of my house.’ Words like that lead to action, and sometimes they can lead to mass murder.

“Particularly in these dark times, we need to learn these lessons. Our witnesses are passing away, and the story of the Shoah will go from memory to history.

“This is our last chance.”

A Holocaust survivor at a Cafe Europa session.

Among the many lessons the survivors can teach come from “their deeds,” Mr. Schneider said. “Their heroism. The tenacity of the human spirit, and of the Jewish spirit. They speak because they believe that their history does not have to define their grandchildren’s future. They believe in humanity. They believe that the world can be a better place.

“That optimism is shocking and inspirational. If they believe that, what right do we have to give up? To not try to make the world a better place?”

Especially after October 7, that need is even more pressing, and time continues to tick away. “The survivors now are telling their stories with a sense of urgency that cannot be ignored.”

Abe Foxman of Bergen County, at 83 is among the younger survivors. He was born in Poland, to a well-to-do family, in 1940; his parents gave him to his non-Jewish nanny because they were sure that they would die and wanted him to live.

All three of them survived, and after some years at a DP camp found themselves in South Jersey, on a farm; later they moved to New York. Mr. Foxman spent half a century at the Anti-Defamation League and eventually became its head; he retired from that position in 2015 and now is the group’s emeritus director.

He is very active in working with other survivors and the agencies that help them.

A survivor and her granddaughter

Stories from the Holocaust’s victims and survivors are vitally important, he said, and even during the Shoah, people understood that. “I remember asking my father,” Joseph Foxman, “who was a historian. I said that I didn’t understand these people, who were about to die, and the difference between life and death was a piece of bread or a cup of soup, and they would barter bread for paper and soup for ink, so they could write their memoir.

“He said that it was because their greatest fear was that they would perish, and nobody would have known if they’d lived or died.

“The imperative to bear witness was so very important.”

The Jews who died in the Shoah came from a range of subcultures — shtetls and cities, Orthodox and secular, urbane or uneducated — few of them came from backgrounds that particularly valued diaries. But after the war, people found thousands of diaries, Mr. Foxman said. They were written out of the need to tell the story. To bear witness. “What are survivors but witnesses?” he asked.

“Ironically, for the first 20 years or so survivors were silent. They didn’t want to tell their kids. They didn’t want to frighten their kids. People didn’t believe them. No one wanted to hear it. No one wanted to believe it.”

But over time, nudged along by changes in cultural assumptions, by the passage of decades, and by the rise in Holocaust denial, survivors started telling their stories.

“And they realized that they were not immortal,” Mr. Foxman continued. “If they didn’t tell their story, that story wouldn’t be told. So there was a period of survivors actively making sure that they continued to bear witness, and that the memory would continue.

“There was an effort” — largely successful — “to build museums everywhere, in the hope that after the survivors were gone, they would bear witness.”

Abe Foxman is with his parents, Helen and Joseph, in a DP camp in Germany. ABE FOXMAN

Not everyone was sure that the museums would be useful; they worried that no one would go to them, so “after the Jews had gone there, they would be empty, and an insult to the victims.” The museum on the Mall in Washington nearly fell victim to that idea before it was built; it went on to become the second-most-visited museum in D.C. after the Smithsonian. (It held that distinction for years, before yielding it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Mr. Foxman said; it’s now holding steady at number three.)

To understate, memory is complicated. Mr. Foxman was 5 years old when the war ended and his parents reclaimed him. He cannot be sure which of his earliest memories are of experiences rather than of stories. “Also, the mind protects you from bad memories, and it sometimes wipes out the most painful ones,” he said. But the combination of memory and historical documentation tells survivors’ stories with both clarity and emotion.

“There is an irony,” Mr. Foxman concluded. “We celebrate the survivors more now than we did 25 years ago — but then there was more to celebrate. It’s very nice now. It would have been even nicer 25 years ago.”

The Claims Conference continues to work to support the survivors as they age. Learn more at its website, www.claimscon.org.

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