On a gray, misty December afternoon, the conference room of the Marion & Aaron Gural JCC in Cedarhurst was bright with the sights and sounds of celebration. Tables were decorated for Hanukkah with blue crepe paper and holiday gelt, and silver and blue balloons floated in the air. Emerging from a line of vans parked outside, 70 Holocaust survivors entered the room, some using walkers or wheelchairs, in anticipation of a joyous afternoon of fun, food, dance and song.
The dancing started in earnest after the Pledge of Allegiance, “Hatikvah” (Israel’s national anthem), and a lunch of lemon chicken, salad and sugarcoated jelly doughnuts. As the DJ turned up the volume on the so-called Club Med song, “Hands Up (Give Me Your Heart),” participants raised their arms, singing together the lyrics before joining hands for a riotous round of Israeli dancing that was joined by aides, family and JCC staff.
Supported on either side, 93-year-old Helena Sardi of Cedarhurst, whose family perished in Auschwitz, swayed to the music. “This is a wonderful day in my life!” she exclaimed.
Though many attendees have serious health issues, this day was “all about celebration, coming together,” said Cathy Byrne, gerontologist and director of the JCC’s Holocaust Survivor Program, which serves 200 Long Island survivors.
“It’s good for people to get out,” said Marion Blumenthal Lazan, 88, of Hewlett, who attended with her husband, Nathaniel. “It gives one a feeling of renewal, joy and happiness, especially for those who are alone.”
Blumenthal Lazan, born in Hoya, Germany, survived six years of internment in the Netherlands and Germany with her parents and brother, Albert. Though they survived the camps, Blumenthal Lazan’s father died from typhus just after liberation.
Memories of hunger have lasted a lifetime for her. Seeing a man with a bag of challah rolls to take home, Blumenthal Lazan wryly recalled what she says to students when she talks about her Holocaust experiences: “Never throw out bread. I tell my students to take what they can eat — do not waste.”
The Hanukkah party, social programming and health services at the JCC’s Holocaust Survivor Program receive funding from the Conference for Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Formed in 1951 by 23 global Jewish organizations, the Claims Conference secured material compensation from the German government for Holocaust survivors around the world, negotiating and disbursing funds to organizations and individuals, along with the return of Jewish property stolen during World War II. Since 1952, Germany has paid out more than $90 billion to individuals for suffering and losses resulting from Nazi persecution. In 2021, the Claims Conference distributed about $820 million in direct compensation to over 210,000 survivors in 83 countries; it also allocated about $650 million in grants to over 300 social service agencies.
Documentary on reparations agreement
To combat the rise in antisemitism and Holocaust denial, and to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Claims Conference’s landmark agreements, filmmaker Roberta Grossman created a compelling documentary, “Reckonings: The First Reparations,” to illuminate this untold story of Holocaust history. Premiering in October 2022 in Manhattan, the film explores how the German reparations program came about.
How could the largest mass genocide in history be redressed by its perpetrators? For the more than 200,000 European Jewish survivors in Displaced Persons Camps and thousands who had left Europe for Israel or other countries, who had lost their families, homes and once-vibrant communities, starting over was daunting. “Reckonings,” funded by the German government and Claims Conference, shows how in the aftermath of the war, representatives of the West German government, Israel and the Claims Conference met in 1952 to negotiate financial settlements known as The Luxembourg Agreements.
“For the first time in history the three groups were able to meet and find a way forward,” Grossman told Newsday. “The idea of parties standing on opposite sides of a trough with the biggest mass murder between them, who could come out with something, is pretty inspiring.”
“This was a seminal agreement that shaped the way Germany looked at the past, and how history records it,” said Gideon Taylor, Claims Conference president. “Dealing with reparations is hard — taking the most awful act and translating it into financial terms.”
The documentary reveals the obstacles behind the negotiations — and the reluctance of survivors to accept the reparation payments. Said Grossman: “Bringing back those lost was impossible, yet survivors were in a desperate situation. Most survivors were extremely reluctant to take the payments. Most had lost all of their families. There wasn’t a dollar amount to be paid for them.”
Yet over time, the entitlements have helped survivors in a huge way, said Taylor. “It gave many Holocaust survivors the resources to live out the remainder of their lives with dignity — to help them meet basic needs. And it is significant for Holocaust survivors because it is a recognition.”
According to UJA-Federation of New York, 30,000 Holocaust survivors live in New York State, 40% of them in poverty. And it’s an aging population: The majority of the survivors in the Cedarhurst JCC are in their 90s and 100s, according to Byrne.
In addition to celebrations like the Hanukkah party, Claims Conference funds support crisis intervention, one-on-one counseling, home visits and emotional support. “Social workers meet individually with survivors to define what they’re eligible for, based on their persecution experience, and what programs they would benefit from,” she said, adding, “There are a handful of younger survivors from the former Soviet Union. We’re seeing more Holocaust survivors migrating from New York City and Brooklyn into the Five Towns — the numbers are increasing.”
Selfhelp serves 4,500 New Yorkers
Another organization that supports Holocaust survivors with Claims Conference funds is Selfhelp Community Services, a nonprofit with sites in New York City and in Nassau County.
“The largest population of survivors are from the Soviet Union,” Hanan Simhon, vice president of Selfhelp’s Holocaust Survivor Program, said of the organization’s clients. “They tend to be younger, around 86, and their needs are different. Living in the former Soviet Union after the war they did not have the opportunity to rebuild their lives, and lived in poverty and with antisemitism. They came at advanced ages to the U.S. and Israel, and didn’t have training or pensions and were isolated. . . . Many come with financial needs — help to pay rent, utilities and medical care.”
Selfhelp, the Claims Conference’s largest grantee in New York State, was founded in 1936 by German Jewish émigrés seeking to help immigrants who had escaped Nazi-
occupied Europe. Today, Selfhelp assists more than 4,500 Holocaust survivors in the state with social services, emergency financial assistance, social programming, Holocaust education and home care. “Our mission is to be the last remaining relative for survivors,” Simhon said. “When family can’t help or doesn’t exist, we help.”
Malnutrition and other hardships suffered during the war have exacerbated the ailments of advancing age for survivors. Also, said Simhon, “As they age, memories of the Holocaust have come back more and more. When they were younger and more physically active, they thought of other things that kept their minds off the Holocaust, but as they’ve aged those memories have come back in greater strength, and their cognitive abilities are deteriorating.”
Survivors also deal with the loss of spouses and friends. “The hardest time of day for them is dinnertime — eating alone is difficult. The nightmares have resurfaced for many, and so has the anxiety and sleeplessness. Love is so needed when someone is 95 and having trouble sleeping,” Byrne said.
And horrible memories can intrude into the present. There have been times when the sight of young men of military age, or someone wearing knee-high boots has triggered feelings of panic, said Susie Feibusch 91, of North Woodmere. Feibusch, who immigrated to the United States from Germany in December 1939, cannot forget the terrible events of Nov. 9-10, 1938, called Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” when Nazi storm troopers destroyed hundreds of synagogues and businesses.
“We had a small synagogue in one of the rooms of our house,” Feibusch said. She said Nazis took the bimah and benches from the room and burned them in the marketplace, and they took her father to a concentration camp.
At the JCC in Cedarhurst, “reminiscent therapy,” conducted in Yiddish, helps survivors “concentrate on thoughts and memories of happier times,” said Byrne. “In September we held a Yiddish Theater program, with wonderful songs. Seeing the whole group singing was beautiful.”
“Everybody has a story, each story is unique, and our survivors are comforted by knowing other survivors have also experienced trauma,” she said. “On Yom Hashoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day] each survivor lights a candle and can mourn openly. We have created a surrogate family for those with no family.”
Company in grief
Bernie Igielski, 95, who lives with his daughter, Helene, in North Woodmere, had a carefree childhood in Brzeziny, Poland, before it was invaded by the Germans in September 1939. The Jews were soon herded into a ghetto. When it was liquidated by the Nazis in May 1942, children and the elderly were separated from the able-bodied to be gassed. Igielski watched SS guards knock his mother’s youngest child out of her arms and drag her away. Igielski, who lost his parents and eight siblings, survived eight concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau, and a death march.
Bernie did not speak about the war for many years but bonded with other survivors in the Cedarhurst Holocaust survivors’ group. “The presence of other people who went through the Holocaust — and understand how I feel about it — has helped me,” he said.
Still, the ghosts of the past haunt him, and he is plagued by nightmares, said Helene: “During COVID, caseworkers from the M&AG JCC came and were here for us.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating, Byrne said: “We lost 30 survivors.”
And the enforced isolation has taken a huge emotional toll, said Aubrey Jacobs, managing director of Selfhelp’s Holocaust Survivor Program for Queens and Nassau.
“During the pandemic, we went completely virtual,” she said at a “Coffee House” one December afternoon at the Mid Island JCC in Plainview. “We called weekly to make sure survivors were connected to shopping resources and connected them to programs that do food delivery. Social programs were transitioned to be virtual. A virtual senior center was created with a special platform for Holocaust survivors.”
According to Jacobs, Selfhelp serves 200 survivors in Nassau County ranging in age from 77 to well into their 100s; among the services they receive are case management; help determining U.S. benefits and Holocaust restitution; counseling; emergency cash assistance; and home care and housekeeping subsidized by the German government. “Most live independently, some are in assisted living,” she said.
That afternoon, 30 survivors gathered at the Plainview JCC Coffee House to socialize, snack on a spread of tuna fish, egg salad and rugelach, and listen to a DJ play a medley of Broadway tunes, ’40s and ’50s hits, and Yiddish melodies.
Livia Horovitz, 85, of North Woodmere, said she enjoys the monthly Coffee Houses. “We eat, talk, dance, do everything — I like people.”
Born in Debrecen, Hungary, Horovitz and her family were interned in Strasshof labor camp in Austria, where she witnessed many die, including relatives and friends: “Prisoners were forced to stand in the rain for appel [roll call] for hours. We ate grass.” After liberation, Horovitz returned to Hungary. After escaping Communist Hungary in 1957, she and her late husband, Tibor, came to the United States the next year.
Preserving survivors’ stories is among the goals of Holocaust education programming at the Cedarhurst JCC and at Selfhelp. Survivors have spoken at schools, synagogues, churches and community centers, Byrne said. And they have written memoirs, like Blumenthal Lazan’s, “Four Perfect Pebbles” (HarperCollins Publishers, 1996).
“One of the highlights of Bernie Igielski’s life was his participation in the 2004 documentary ‘Paper Clips,’ ” Byrne said. “I took four survivors to Whitwell, Tennessee, to educate people about the Holocaust. No one there had ever met a Holocaust survivor before. People drove for hundreds of miles away to shake hands with survivors. It was an inspirational time for Bernie and three other survivors.”
Selfhelp’s Witness Theater, now in its 11th year, brings together survivors and students once a week. After participants get to know one another, the storytelling begins.
“The storytelling part of the program — during which survivors tell the students what happened to them as teenagers — is emotional support for both survivors and students. At the end, they put together the play, a script written by a student who portrays a survivor, and the survivor narrates,” said Simhon.
Holocaust survivor Rachel Epstein, 90, of Roslyn, has recounted her story of living in hiding in wartime France as part of Witness Theater: “I prefer working with not too many people — you can make the students understand better,” she said.
Although telling her story makes her relive her painful past, she feels she must honor the memory of the Christian couple, Henri and Suzanne Ribouleau, who risked their lives to save her and her younger brother. Epstein was living in Paris with her parents and brother in 1942 when the police came to arrest her parents because they were Jewish. The Ribouleaus, who lived in the apartment below, assured her parents they would keep the children safe until their return; they later found the parents had died at Auschwitz. The Ribouleaus sheltered Epstein and her brother for three years, until the war’s end. “My story is what these people did for us — we owe everything to them,” Epstein said.
“There are so many lessons to be learned from the Holocaust,” said Blumenthal Lazan. “First to be good and kind to one another — that is the basis for peace. Not to follow a leader blindly, without searching in your conscience for what the consequences could be. And you must never judge someone — there were so many righteous gentiles in Poland and Germany.”
Despite the atrocities they witnessed while young, the survivors retain their optimism and zest for life. “I’m 90 years old, and I dance — I do the Argentine Tango, and I’m pretty good at it,” boasted Epstein.
The survivors are proud of being U.S. citizens, of what they accomplished in this country, and they are eager to share how many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren they have — a triumph over the Nazis who sought to destroy them.
Focus should not be just on survivors’ needs, said Simhon: “We must remember that the survivors are resilient. These are people who built new lives, new homes, and started families. They have given to the community, and we have to learn from them.
“We should never lose that piece — not only their needs but their strength as well.”