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In Israel, remembering the forgotten survivors of the Holocaust

In a small, dirty park just south of this bustling metropolis, three friends gathered for a bit of sun and some quiet.

For one of the men, the park was a very familiar place. Until a year ago, he’d slept on a bench there to help make ends meet. It reminded him of his childhood decades ago when the Holocaust was sweeping his native Poland. Sympathetic family friends hid him until they feared the authorities were closing in. He ran, sleeping on the streets and in garbage dumps until he made it to safety.

“Years ago as a child I slept on the streets to survive,” he remembered. Then, in his 80s, in Israel, “I found myself on the streets again.”

The upside? “The park in Israel is much nicer, and cleaner.”

On Thursday, Israelis marked Holocaust Remembrance Day — Yom Hashoa in Hebrew — and the man’s story — he readily gave his name, but asked that it be withheld because his daughter in Europe doesn’t know that her father, at age 84, was until recently homeless — is more common in the Jewish state than most people know.

“It’s shocking, but not that rare,” said one of the man’s companions, also a Holocaust survivor from Poland. “We know so many others like us who have nothing except the sympathy and stories of the genocide.”

According to the Israeli government, roughly 30 percent of Holocaust survivors in Israel live below the poverty line. There are still 198,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel, but every hour another one of them dies, say government officials. It’s an outrage to many Israelis that many survivors can’t live out their last days in dignity.

“As kids we learn about the Holocaust as this crucial part of history, as maybe the reason we have a state,” said Gilli Tazor, a 24-year-old volunteer with the Latet organization, a group that provides aid to the needy. “But in reality we treat Holocaust survivors worse than any other country.”

In 2009, Latet discovered a Holocaust survivor named Yevgeny Bistrizky, who had been living in a park in Tel Aviv for more than a year. They placed him in a state-sponsored home, where he still lives.

“It is unbelievable that this could happen,” said Liron Yochai, one of the directors at Latet. “I still can’t believe that Holocaust survivors are needy in Israel. If it were not for them, we wouldn’t have this country. Because of what they went through, we were allowed to build this country. It was their hands, their money.”

She added that many survivors have special needs, suffering from a variety of mental disorders and paranoia that prevent them from reaching out for help or accepting assistance.

In 2007, the Israeli government approved a $260 million multiyear plan to assist Holocaust survivors. But most organizations say it was far too little, and that tens of millions of dollars are still being held in the coffers of organizations meant to distribute the funds.

“They say they are saving this money, but I don’t know for what. In 15 years, there won’t be any Holocaust survivors left. We deserve to give them what we can now,” Yochai said.

The man from Poland might still be sleeping on a park bench if a local group hadn’t discovered last year that he’d lost his home and placed him in a privately-funded home for the aged that is filled with other Holocaust survivors.

He admits that he had trouble accepting help from the state and from private groups.

“I know I’m a bit funny, I’m not easy, as they say,” he said. “But sometimes it’s hard to accept help after everything else — to trust that others will help you.”

He doesn’t mind the home where he is currently living in, but the noise and “crowds” aren’t what he’s used to.

“There are always people chatting and coming and going,” he said. “At my age, I like peace and quiet.”

Which is why he still visits the little park where he once slept. On Wednesday, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, he said he would spend the evening in the park with his friends playing cards.

“Everyone else remembers, but we can’t forget,” he said.

As for the Holocaust itself, he’d rather not discuss it.

“Some people like to remember in detail how they survived because they want people to remember,” he said. “There are enough stories about survival. I don’t want to share it.”

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