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Why the time to help Holocaust survivors is now

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A visit to someone’s home where you see he is keeping the thermostat at 57 degrees when it is 17 degrees outside. Witnessing someone freezing leftover cups of coffee to save for later. Seeing someone avoid going to the doctor because she fears it will mean she will need to go to the hospital and may never return to her home.

These are things that I have witnessed when visiting the homes of Holocaust survivors. This tells me that too many are struggling to live out their remaining years in dignity. It tells me that more needs to be done.

{mosads}Not widely known is that around one-third of the more than 100,000 Holocaust survivors who are living in the United States today live at or below the poverty line. Further, an estimated 61 percent of the Holocaust survivors living at the poverty line live on less than $23,000 per year, making it impossibly difficult to afford proper medical care, mental health care, nutrition and other basic needs. 

My organization, The Blue Card, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing ongoing, direct aid to Holocaust survivors in the United States, saw requests for assistance grow by 20 percent in 2016 over the year before. Survivors have told us that their greatest needs for support are help paying for homecare, food and utilities, followed by dental care, medication, housing expenses such as rent, transportation, medical supplies and equipment and telephone emergency response systems. In all, there is an unmet need of roughly $5,000 per person per year to cover the gaps and shortfalls.

As the number of survivors declines, the need for financial assistance of those still alive increases. Around one-in-four Holocaust survivors in the United States are 85 or older, though age does not tell the complete story of the living conditions of these individuals.

Dating back to the severe famine, stress and elements they were exposed to during the war, studies have found that Holocaust survivors face a higher rate of chronic and acute illness such as cancer and heart disease. Also, their lifelong oral health has been impacted due to the prolonged nutritional deprivation and little to no dental care many experienced throughout their childhoods.

Not only do Holocaust survivors suffer disproportionately from physical injuries and disabilities, but they are permanently living with the psychological and emotional scars of the atrocities and displacement they faced.

These scars, and the resulting PTSD and risks of depression, are intensified as survivors age.

Survivors have a great fear of institutionalization. The prospect of being forced to move out of their homes brings back memories of the trauma from their youth. There are feelings of isolation from the loss of spouses and family. There is also an incredible amount of stress. Not only from financial distress, but from losing a support system to advocate for them and to help them navigate the complexities of public assistance programs.

There are beacons of hope in the public and private sectors. In New York, where around half of survivors in the U.S. are estimated to live, the New York City Council allocated $2.5 million in its fiscal year 2017 budget to assist Holocaust survivors living in poverty. Then there is the partnership between the Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity and Henry Schein, Inc., whose Oral Health Program is providing pro-bono dental care to Holocaust survivors in need around the country.

To borrow the inspiring words of the late Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

The reality is there is not a great deal of time left to help improve the quality of life for survivors, and the window is closing. At least half of Holocaust survivors alive today are estimated to pass away within the next 10 to 20 years.

As Holocaust survivors enter the twilight of their lives it is critical that funding be provided to ease the suffering they experience and to honor their spirit. It needs to be a combined effort by government, social service agencies, private organizations, nonprofits and individuals.

The time to help is now.

Masha Pearl is the executive director of The Blue Card, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing direct, ongoing financial aid and support to Holocaust survivors in the United States.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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