One of my teachers, the Jewish historian Professor Ze’ev Mankowitz z”l, used to say that the normal span of human memory is about eighty years. Anything that happened longer ago than that crosses the boundary between lived experience and history; few, if any, can recall it as personal memory. Even though many live longer than that, our memories of childhood tend to be patchy and scant, and our capacity to remember inevitably deteriorates with age.
His words came back to me during the 75th anniversary commemorations of the liberation of Auschwitz last month. If he’s right, the Holocaust will cross into the realm of history in about five years’ time. Of course, survivors will still be around for some time after that —the very last obituaries won’t be written until the late 2040s — but the vast majority, and an increasing majority over time, will have been children, even infants, during the Nazi period.
Beyond the inevitable sadness that comes with any loss of human life, there seems to be a growing sense of angst in the Jewish community about life in the post-survivor era. The Holocaust looms very large for us — 91 percent of Jews in Britain consider it an important part of their Jewish identities — and it informs and shapes much of how we see the world, and how the world sees us. And survivors are uniquely placed to raise awareness of it — their live oral testimonies have been the best tools we have in the fight against ignorance, delegitimisation and denial — so we worry about life without them.
But we need to prepare ourselves for that eventuality because despite the best efforts of some in the community (Pears Foundation, in particular, has supported some extraordinary work creating interactive survivor holograms at the USC Shoah Foundation and the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Nottingham), that post-survivor period is, in fact, extremely close.
How close? New data issued by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) this month show that there were 172,500 Holocaust survivors living in Israel at the end of 2019. A 2003 study, conducted by Hebrew University Professor Sergio DellaPergola, found that survivors in Israel constituted 47 percent of the total survivor population alive at that time. Using that as a guide whilst also estimating patterns of migration among survivors in the interim, we reach a global survivor population today of no more than about 350,000.
That’s still a fair number of people. But to give you an idea of the rate of decline, about two-thirds of those included in that 2003 study are no longer alive. At present, about one in ten passes away per annum, but that proportion rises every year.
The CBS report also issued some rather extraordinary data about the age structure of the survivor population. Typically, when looking at a population aged 74-plus, one would expect to see more people in the youngest age bands, and fewer in the older ones, reflecting normal patterns of mortality — the older the age band investigated, the fewer people there are.
But that doesn’t happen among Shoah survivors. Or it does, but only when looking at those aged 81 or 82 and older. Looking at the bands younger than 81/82 years, the numbers decline the younger they get, indeed rather dramatically.
Why? Because they didn’t survive in the first place. Most of the youngest— those born during the Holocaust — never really stood a chance. Moreover, many who might have been in this age group never even existed— their would-be parents, assuming they were still alive, were largely in no position to procreate.
The age distribution data also speak to the issue of memory. Today, less than a quarter of survivors still alive were aged 14 or older at the end of the war. Project forward just five years —to the 80th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Mankowitz’s 80-year threshold — and that proportion will have fallen to about 10 percent. Five years later, it will be about 2 percent. The collective capacity to remember is diminishing rapidly.
Seen in that way, we are indeed perilously close to the boundary between memory and history. We have got used to having survivors around; many are some of the most treasured members of the community. But we cannot rely on their live testimonies for much longer; the day is rapidly approaching when we will need to draw on other resources to provide the support and meaning they have given us for so long.
Jonathan Boyd is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR)