As thousands gather on Jan. 27 for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, several stories will be told. Apart from narratives of vanished communities and residents killed, there will be tales of individuals who outlived Nazi Germany and the atrocities of World War II. And some of their stories are tales of desperation – even after withstanding the horrors of genocide.
According to a 2018 Blue Card report, one-third of American Holocaust survivors live at or below the federal poverty level. The numbers are even higher in certain cities. In 2013, for example, a report from Selfhelp Community Services noted that more than half of the Holocaust survivors in New York City’s metropolitan area “are in financial distress,” and live 150% below the federal poverty level. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles reports that more than 3,000 Holocaust survivors face poverty.
To counter this grim reality, efforts have been made nationwide to aid survivors.
In Palm Beach County, where nearly 5,000 Holocaust survivors live at or below poverty level, MorseLife Health System in West Palm Beach and the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County recently partnered to provide comfort and dignity through services, reported the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Locally, there are also efforts to help.
“We work with 45 survivors,” said Lauren Bairnsfarther, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. The figure doesn’t include the totality of Pittsburgh’s survivor community, as “there are probably people we don’t know and people from the former Soviet Union who would be considered survivors,” she said, but the Steel City group is committed to helping survivors get resources of all types, “for those who experience food insecurity or have other needs.”
Many of those services are coordinated by JFCS.
“Historically, JFCS has always worked with the survivors, and then in 1998 we started getting this additional funding, which helps provide for home care, medical supplies and services to help keep Holocaust survivors in the community in their homes,” said Stefanie Small, JFCS’ clinical director.
Through the support of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Inc., private donations, funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and help from the Area Agency on Aging as well as AgeWell Pittsburgh, “we’re able to get all of the survivors, whether traditional survivors or those from the former Soviet Republics, whatever it is that they might need.”
Since 1998, Sandy Budd, a geriatric social worker at JFCS, has helped survivors navigate an often complex web of international regulations — those requesting pension benefits from different European countries must possess a Certificate of Life. JFCS helps survivors obtain such document through assisting with necessary forms. Among Budd’s tasks is partnering with the Claims Conference, an organization that negotiates each year with the German government on behalf of eligible Holocaust victims.
Judah Samet is one of several Pittsburgh survivors who have benefitted from Budd and the Claims Conference’s efforts.
“Sandy is a wonderful girl,” said Samet. “We’re friends.”
Samet said with Budd’s help he’s been able to maintain his independence in his Oakland residence.
“In fiscal year 2019, JFCS served 33 survivors,” said Small. “Since 1998, JFCS has served about 145 survivors specifically helped by the Claims Conference.”
“We will help anyone,” said Budd. “And if you know of someone who may qualify for any services, or you’re not sure, please reach out.”
What’s available to Pittsburgh’s survivors stands out from resources other cities can offer, explained Small: “In a lot of cities, there are large swaths of survivors who are really not getting what they need. But in Allegheny County, because of the Area Agency on Aging and the funding that the Area Agency on Aging gets from the lottery money, we have robust services for older adults.”
Between 2017 and 2018, the Pennsylvania Lottery contributed more than $336 million to the state’s 52 Area Agencies on Aging. Serving residents within the state’s 67 counties, the Area Agencies on Aging provide home-delivered meals, legal assistance, health insurance counseling and other services.
Allegheny County, with its sizable older population, benefits greatly, explained Small: “A lot of people who are lower income, which are a lot of survivors, especially in the Russian community, are able to receive the services that they would need to remain in their home and remain in the community.”
Despite all the help, more could be done to help the community, she continued.
“We’re losing survivors at a much more rapid rate now than we ever have before,” said Small.
“We lost at least eight survivors from the Holocaust Center’s community in 2019,” said Bairnsfather.
The number is sobering, said Small: “It just reinforces how important it is to continue to tell their stories, to continue to help the survivors that are still with us, to make sure we don’t forget, and it never happens again.” pjc
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.