This May 4, Israel literally will come to a standstill to mark the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, perhaps one of the most solemn days in Israel besides Yom Kippur. On this day, the Jewish state and Jews worldwide recall the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
On Yom HaShoah, air-raid sirens across Israel herald a moment of silence. Even highway traffic stops. Worldwide, synagogues and communal institutions memorialize the victims. The Jewish people unite to say: Never again.
While it’s critical for the Jewish people — for all people — to remember the Holocaust and learn its lessons, sadly, we have been ignoring the current plight of hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors around the world who are living out their last days in wretched poverty.
In countries of the former Soviet Union and in the Jewish state itself, but also throughout Europe, and North and South America, more than 200,000 Holocaust survivors are suffering alone without enough food, medicine and heating fuel.
Tragically, few if any of the Yom HaShoah memorials will address this shameful fact. Standing silent year after year does not absolve us of the pressing moral imperative to care for these survivors. The clock is ticking. Every day 40 survivors die. Within the next decade, all those who experienced the Holocaust first-hand will almost certainly be gone.
We must immediately change our orientation to this solemn day by honoring the last Holocaust survivors before it’s too late. We must move from memorializing the past to also acting in the present. It’s about time that Jews, Christians and people of conscience everywhere unite to bring a measure of dignity to the last remaining Holocaust survivors in their final days.
Christians, through our organization, have for many years been contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to help meet the basic needs of these last survivors — providing food, medicine, rent, home heating fuel and home visits in Israel and the former Soviet Union. But it’s not enough.
We call on people of conscience everywhere to join us in helping these survivors.
This is not only about paying for programs to improve survivors’ final days. It is also about doing something tangible to fulfill our moral obligation to the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors while we can.
We must re-examine the meaning and impact of Holocaust Remembrance Day. For years Israeli society debated the nature of Yom HaShoah, whether it should be a day of memorializing the victims or of also honoring those who resisted. As a result, Holocaust Remembrance Day is referred to as Holocaust Remembrance and Heroism Day. But it’s time for us to re-evaluate these two dimensions of how we mark this day and add a third one — helping the remaining Holocaust survivors achieve a measure of dignity in the twilight of their lives.
We dare not miss this opportunity or shirk this responsibility. Most of us hope that, were we alive during the Holocaust, we would have done everything in our power to save even a single life. But we cannot live in the past. We must act in the present. When the remaining Holocaust survivors are gone, I pray that we will be able to face ourselves in the mirror knowing we did what we could, while we still could, to help Holocaust survivors in their final days. That is how we can best honor them.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein is the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.