Yesterday we commemorated Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. With the war continuing to rage in Ukraine, we’re especially attuned to Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are tragically being forced to flee yet again for their lives.
In 1941, approximately 5.1 million Jews lived in the Soviet Union — by the end of the war, 2.7 million were brutally murdered. Most did not die in extermination camps but were killed in the immediate vicinity of their homes, often, horribly, witnessed by friends and family. There were more than 2,700 killing sites in the region, the most infamous, Babyn Yar, on the northern edge of Kyiv, where over a two-day period in late September 1941 more than 33,000 Jews were massacred in a mass shooting. Father Patrick Desbois, a noted Holocaust scholar, called it a “Holocaust by bullets.”
Those who survived the war and stayed in the Soviet Union were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, where authorities prohibited public recognition of their Holocaust experiences and persecution. So they lived in silence.
Later, with the fall of the Soviet Union, many survivors chose to immigrate to Israel, others to the United States. Survivors who came to America often had little to no resources and, having come later in life, couldn’t accumulate much in the way of social security. Now in old age, many live in poverty, struggling to put food on the table and pay for medical expenses.
Other survivors chose to stay in the former Soviet Union, including in Ukraine, where — with our support — a robust Jewish community took shape from the ashes of Communism. And with this current war, it’s unbelievably heartbreaking that in frail old age, Ukrainian survivors are again displaced.
UJA’s emergency grants, in addition to the funds we’ve provided for decades to partners in this region, are ensuring that Holocaust survivors in Ukraine are receiving lifesaving care. In many cases, homecare workers, employed by the Hesed program operated by our partner JDC, have moved in with their elderly clients to ensure their continued care. Our funds are also providing transportation, medical care, and psychological first aid for people well into their 80s and 90s who are now refugees.
Here at home, our partner Selfhelp, the largest organization serving Holocaust survivors in North America, reports that 65% of the survivors they serve are from the former Soviet Union — and of that group, a heartbreaking 80% live below the poverty line. Our continuing investment in UJA’s Community Initiative for Holocaust Survivors (CIHS) enables these survivors to receive an array of social services, including food, emergency cash, transportation to and from doctor appointments, legal counsel, and much more. And for Russian-speaking survivors, we’re also providing access to social workers who speak the language and can offer culturally appropriate care.
We also actively lobby for government dollars to support the needs of survivors, and this week I met with Governor Hochul at the Boro Park Y, a UJA partner, to thank her and the state legislature for including an additional $2.6 million in this year’s state budget for critical survivor needs.
In all these ways, we make good on our promise to never abandon survivors who still live. No less important is the promise to never forget.
Yesterday afternoon, I had the honor of representing UJA at a White House gathering to mark Yom HaShoah. President Biden shared how he first learned of the horrors of the Holocaust from his father, who wanted his children to grasp what he called the “personification of evil.” The lesson was so intently learned that the president took his own children and grandchildren to visit the concentration camps, fearing that without remembrance the evil could reoccur.
As the son-in-law of two survivors who lost much of their family during the Holocaust, I was deeply moved to hear these words spoken at the White House. We cannot take for granted what it means for the president of the United States to use his platform to speak against the atrocities of the past and commit to fighting present-day antisemitism. Nor can we take for granted the survivors still with us, who are aging rapidly and whose time with us grows short.
From the White House to Kyiv to Borough Park, “never forget and never abandon” embodies our most fundamental and sacred moral obligation. Let us always honor these words with our actions.