Frances Irwin is 90 years old. She was born in Poland and lives in Brooklyn. She is a Holocaust survivor.
Frances is lonely, even though her son takes care of her. She collects used aluminum foil in a kitchen piled high with paper plates. She relies on an emergency wristband to call for help. When you ask her to, she is able to vividly recall the worst of her World War II experience. She displays a mix of shame and trepidation when deciding whether to roll up her sleeve and show the world her forearm, tattooed at Auschwitz.
The truth is that Frances, like all Holocaust survivors, is old. Like many survivors, she’s dependent on Jewish and social welfare. She’s not living as well as she deserves to live. One day, not long from now, Frances and the others like her will die. Then there will be no more Holocaust survivors left.
Writer Ron Rosenbaum once noted in these pages that one of the greatest risks of Jewish life today is the smothering sentimentalization of our memory of the Shoah. Frances’ closing chapter offers no “meretricious uplift.” The fact that she survived Auschwitz only to suffer at the end of her life is appalling and embarrassing. These are painful things to think about, let alone say. And part of the uneasiness comes from the way wealthy and comfortable American Jews have used “remembering the Holocaust” as the touchstone of their communal existence.
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