January 27, 2020, marked both the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was also a heavy day of media consumption as basketball fans around the world digested the news of Kobe Bryant’s sudden death and Americans and global onlookers followed the ongoing impeachment trial of Donald Trump.
While both newsworthy events merited attention, there was an overshadowing of Holocaust remembrance. The coverage that did exist ignored many of the larger and incredibly concerning trends of increasing anti-Semitism, violence against Jews, de-Jewifying of the Holocaust, distancing of national responsibilities, and rewriting national narratives.
Just weeks prior, I had the opportunity to travel to Auschwitz for the first time and be a witness as a Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) Frank Family Leadership Institute Fellow. My participation was generously supported by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Community Engagement team and the Sam Rosenwald Fellowship. The JCPA Fellowship includes travel to Poland, conversations with the reemerging Jewish community in Krakow, and tours of the Warsaw Ghetto and other significant sites. Our time in Poland culminated with a day where we confronted the methodological and intentional horrors of the Holocaust at Auschwitz-Birkenau and, like the much-used phrase, never forget.
After traveling in Poland, we joined JCPA leadership in Israel to channel the pain and loss into the hope and spirit of Israel. While there, we met with many different constituents who helped describe the complexities of modern Israeli society — from LGBT rights to the political instability of their coalition government to racism that exists among the many individuals who call Israel home.
Critically, this is likely the last milestone anniversary of the Holocaust where survivors will be alive and well to tell their story themselves. Only 200 survivors were alive and healthy enough to make the trek out for the Remembrance this year, according to the LATimes. Five years ago, at the last Remembrance, that number was 300. Today, approximately 85,000 survivors live in the U.S. and as that number rapidly declines, this Fellowship impressed upon me how vitally important it is for all us, Jews and non-Jews alike, to bear witness in their stead and ensure our communities not only never forget, but also act with intention.
On return to Los Angeles, I was reminded about The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ efforts to care for Jews in need. It is estimated that between a quarter to a half of Holocaust survivors are living in deep poverty. Many have outlived survivor funding and are dealing with a variety of aging and PTSD-related complications as they attempt to live their lives with dignity. As a community, it is our responsibility to ensure that their efforts are successful.
In 2018, as a participant in The Jewish Federation’s Rautenberg New Leaders Project, I traveled to Sacramento to lobby with the Jewish Public Affairs Committee (JPAC) for additional funding for our state’s survivors. Just a year ago, it was announced that $3.6 million in additional funding was secured and would be distributed for this very purpose.
I have been incredibly fortunate to experience the many ways our community is caring for one another while standing against anti-Semitism, discrimination, and division. I invite each of us to consider what else we can do. It is now our responsibility to carry on the legacy, continue to bear witness, and act intentionally as Rabbi Harold Schulweis eloquently reminded us in his remarks honoring Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, in 2012:
“Statistics do not bleed. Numbers do not cry. Photos are not tortured. But these are human beings, and we are human witnesses. To be witness is not simply to know how to count, but how to respond, how to act, how to intervene.”