At age 89, Holocaust survivor Toby Levy knows her time is limited.
That’s why she spent the better part of an hour this week explaining her story of surviving the Nazi occupation of Poland as a young Jewish girl for whom discovery would have meant death.
Ms. Levy today lives in New York City, an ocean and a lifetime removed from the town of Chodorow — then a part of Poland, now Ukraine — where she and her family hid during the darkest days of the Second World War.
Her family was sheltered in a barn by a Gentile neighbor and at one point used a bucket to dig out crawl spaces in the dirt floor to hide when officials came calling. There were 5,000 Jews in Chodorow before the war, she said. Only 31 survived.
“Like my father said, ‘God needed witnesses’” to the horror inflicted by Nazi Germany, Ms. Levy explained. “That’s why I don’t say ‘no’ to anybody, as tired as I am,” she said about requests to relate her experience.
Ms. Levy is one of several survivors whose stories are being publicized by the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), a nonprofit that has relationships with a number of Holocaust survivors living in the United States.
A statement from the organization said, “With the unfortunate rise in antisemitic bigotry unfolding across the country, CAM believes it is critical at this moment for Holocaust survivors’ stories to be heard. U.S. citizens, and everyone around the world, ought to be well-acquainted with history and understand the real danger behind antisemitic sentiment, threats, and attacks and the dangerous road this has led us down for generations.”
In 2005, the United Nations designated Jan. 27 of each year as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the day when the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Soviet Union’s Red Army in 1945.
An exhibit of “The Book of Names,” a roster of the names of 4.8 million victims compiled by Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, opened at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday.
Six million Jews — one-third of the world’s Jewish population — were killed at the hands of the Nazis. An estimated 270,000 physically and mentally disabled were killed, as were as many as 500,000 Romani people, 200,000 Freemasons, 15,000 homosexuals and 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others.
An estimated 275,000 Holocaust survivors are alive today, media reports indicate. Caring for impoverished survivors falls to nonprofits such as agencies allied with the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).
“Holocaust survivors want us to remember,” said Shelley Rood Wernick, managing director of the Center on Holocaust Survivor Care and Institute on Aging and Trauma at the JFNA. “They want the world not just here to learn, [but also] to take action, to make the world a better place. I spoke with a survivor this morning, his entire life mission is to speak to as many people as he can to get his message out there that you have to act, you have to stand up. We can never let something like this happen again, anywhere.”
This week, JFNA announced grants totaling $5.4 million over the next two years to support Holocaust survivors and other seniors with a history of trauma.
“We’ve learned that trauma impacts people as they age, and that they need their services provided to them in a way that makes them feel safe, and empowering, culturally competent, [and] accessible so that they can actually utilize these services,” Ms. Wernick said.
“Trauma impacts people as they age, as their physical capabilities may start to decline. They may not feel as strong, they may worry about asking for help,” she said.
Of those survivors, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews reports 160,400 are in Israel, and 56,000 are in Russia and other former Soviet Union countries including Ukraine. Yael Eckstein, the charity’s president, said in a telephone interview an average of two survivors in Israel die every hour.
The survivor community, she said, is “a number that is quickly diminishing, and these Holocaust survivors are getting older and sicker and weaker. And the Fellowship really looks at it as the biggest privilege and the opportunity to provide the heroes some dignity and comfort at the end of their lives.”
In Israel, the Fellowship focuses efforts on the 17,000 elderly Jews living in poverty, many of whom are Holocaust survivors, she said. These individuals eke out an existence on incomes around $700 U.S. each month, “which isn’t enough to pay rent, electricity, food [and] medicine,” Ms. Eckstein said.
“We go and we find them. And we say, ‘For as long as you’re in this world, we are going to bring you food every single week and volunteers will visit you, see what your needs are and be there for anything that happens,’” she said.
Ms. Eckstein credits the “hundreds of thousands of Christian and Jewish supporters” who fund the charity’s operations and said recipients, such as one 90-year-old survivor in northern Israel, are deeply grateful for the hope their charity provides.
“When I went to her and told her she was joining this program, she started crying,” Ms. Eckstein said. “She said, ‘How did you find me? I thought everyone forgot.’ And so on top of that security that she wouldn’t need to worry about going hungry, there was this message that she’s not alone. People who don’t know her are providing for her.”
Keeping knowledge of the Holocaust alive is a challenge that many groups are tackling while time remains. Ms. Wernick of JFNA said the youngest survivor would be around age 78, “so we do still expect to have Holocaust survivors with us for some time.”
The USC Shoah Foundation’s “Dimensions in Testimony” program is recording holographic conversations with survivors so future generations can ask questions and get answers from those who survived even after the individuals have passed away.
“Now and far into the future, museum-goers, students and others can have conversational interactions with these eyewitnesses to history to learn from those who were there,” the organization’s website promises.
Ms. Levy told a reporter she understood the dilemma presented by the passing of time. She knows that one day, there will be no more living survivors, and said that adds some urgency to her going out and testifying to what happened.
“I don’t know if it’s going to help,” she said, noting a rise in antisemitism today. “But I have to speak about [the] hate. … I can’t solve the issue, so I pray.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.