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Volunteers fill Passover baskets for Holocaust survivors

Thea Rodrigues Pereira, a Holocaust survivor, from Syosset,

Thea Rodrigues Pereira, a Holocaust survivor, from Syosset, during a Passover celebration Sunday in Plainview. Credit: Johnny Milano

Thea Rodrigues Pereira and her family did not acknowledge Passover during the Holocaust, years she said they spent cramped in a flea-infested attic outside Amsterdam.

They had to keep silent to avoid being detected. And without the daily routine of work and school, time appeared to stand still, she said.

“We didn’t know what day it was. Every day was the same,” said Rodrigues Pereira, 85, of Syosset.

On Sunday, seven decades after the Holocaust, the UJA-Federation of New York hosted a Passover event for about 70 survivors, offering them hot meals, entertainment and a chance to share their stories while volunteers assembled Passover baskets for the group.

Organizers noted that 40 percent of Holocaust survivors live in poverty, calling them an underserved population.

About 130 volunteers gathered at the Mid Island-Y JCC in Plainview to fill the baskets with kosher matzo, macaroons and more for the elderly survivors.

“Many of them did not get to celebrate the holiday in their youth,” said Orna Sheena of UJA. “The main thing is to give them the feeling they are loved and cared for.”

The attendees heard stories like that of Rodrigues Pereira, who described 15 narrow escapes and years living in fear and hunger. She called it a “miracle” that she, her brother — who she said was a classmate of Anne Frank — and their parents survived the war and were later able to resettle in Amsterdam. Nine of her father’s 10 siblings did not. Anne Frank was a Jewish teenager who went into hiding with her family during the Holocaust before being captured by Nazis and dying in a concentration camp at age 16. She chronicled her experiences in the celebrated book, “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

“There’s not a single day that I’m not reminded of all that happened,” Rodrigues Pereira said.

Passover, which this year begins on March 30 and ends April 7, marks the emancipation of Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. The UJA event, called Share the Joy, was previously held near Purim, a late winter celebration.

Julie Kalimian, a co-chairwoman for the event, noted it allowed the survivors to provide a firsthand account of their experiences for her four children ages 10 to 14, something that will not be possible in a few years.

“Your resilience is an inspiration to every single person in this room,” she told the crowd.

The sentiment was not lost on the student volunteers.

“We should have more days that we help them because they did amazing things,” said Zachary Yadegari, 11, of Roslyn.

“It’s teaching me and my brother how to give back, and it’s the right thing to do,” added Jordan Smith, 11, of Woodbury.

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