Julia Weingarten was sitting with her sister in the barracks at Auschwitz when Josef Mengele entered and ordered the girls to line up. Those told to go to the left were doomed, and Weingarten knew it.
She stayed in the back keeping her sister in front of her. When Mengele finally ordered her sister to the left, she lashed out at him and tried to run away.
“Get that pig!” Mengele shouted. German soldiers threw her to the floor and kicked her repeatedly before leaving her on her own. The rest of the women passed her by except one who knew her from her town and who stopped to help. “Help us! Help us!” Weingarten screamed, but no one else did.
Over 60 years later, someone else is stopping to help.
Since 1997, the Jewish Family & Children’s Service has provided an escort service for Holocaust surviviors called Friend in Deed, thanks to an annual grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Inc. It has allowed them to help 10 of the estimated 290 survivors in the Pittsburgh area.
Through that program JF&CS and Elder Care staff escort survivors to the grocery store, their physicians and anywhere else they need to go.
Now, the Edward M. Goldston Teen Philanthropy Project, a partnership of Linda and Edward Goldston, the United Jewish Federation Foundation, and the Agency for Jewish Learning, has awarded Friend in Deed a $6,000 grant that will increase the number of survivors the program serves to at least 30.
Although it was not named with her in mind, the “Friend in Deed” could be seen as a reference to Therese Bissonnette, resource coordinator at JF&CS. If the grant was “truly a gift for our survivors,” as JF&CS spokeswoman Kelly O’Brien says it is, then Bissonnette’s presence has been the embodiment of that gift.
“Oh, what would I do without Therese, I don’t know,” said Shulamit Bastacky, another survivor helped by the program. “If I have a doctor’s appointment, I cannot wait for ACCESS because I cannot sit for so long … so Therese picks me up, and she is so patient. She parks right in front of the building and helps you get there, making it easier on the mind and body. The whole time, she talks with you and establishes a relationship with you. She stays with you no matter how long the appointment is then engages you in conversation to see how it went. Then she’ll take you shopping afterward and get what you need if you can’t get around the store. She’s a Godsend.”
For a population that suffers inordinately from health issues, loneliness, isolation, and fear, “Friend in Deed” is essential.
I don’t think anybody in life went through what I went through,” said Weingarten, the only survivor in her family of eight children. She came to McKeesport with her husband and oldest son, Fredrick, born in a German DP camp, in 1948. She learned English in night school, then became a seamstress and raised two more children.
Her children have all left Pittsburgh and her husband, Yosef, died 27 years ago, but she says, “I’m never alone. When I go through the halls of my apartment [Riverview], everyone hugs me and I have wonderful friends at my synagogue (Gemilas Chesed).
But her best friend of all may still be Bissonnette.
“I’m very happy I have someone to help,” Weingarten said. “I have very bad eyes; practically, I’m blind, and they help me. Whenever I’m in terrible things, they help me. I don’t even have to ask for it, it just happens.”
Despite all the praise, Bissonnette, who has been working with survivors for four years, keeps things in perspective.
“I feel it is an honor and a privilege,” she said. “To get to make their lives just a little better is just an absolute gift. To help with the small things like shopping and doctors visits means so much, because that’s what matters most on a day-to-day basis.”
She emphasizes the importance of working with families. “Sometimes I’ll get calls from families. They talk about their families with such great love, I feel like I know them.”
This sentiment is mutual. “The survivors think of her as family as well,” O’Brien said.
“Everybody loves her,” Bastacky said. “And anybody who doesn’t will have to take it up with me.”
(Derek Kwait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)