January 31, 2023
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National Recap: Program addresses Holocaust survivors’ needs

At the Nachas Health and Family Network chapter located in Brooklyn, New York, elderly Holocaust survivors meet daily for group activities and free meals to eat as a group or to take home with them at the end of the day. 

The addition of free meals was prompted after Frumie Cisner, grant facilitator for Nachas, witnessed survivors digging through a dumpster for food outside a Brooklyn synagogue. “Survey research shows that 25% of all Nazi victims live at or below the official U.S. poverty threshold,” according to the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Currently, 38,000 Holocaust survivors live in the New York metropolitan area. Approximately 40 of those survivors come to Nachas (Yiddish for “joy”) to interact with other survivors, study the Torah, receive legal assistance, exercise and eat. 

Sandy Myers, vice president for external relations and communications at Selfhelp Community Services told the Associated Press, “It’s a tough statistic to wrap your head around. After what the survivors went through earlier in their lives,they sometimes say, ‘We survived Hitler, so we can get through anything.’ This is a population that’s very proud, and it makes it difficult to talk to them about their struggles.”

While the network is a place for these people to connect on shared hardships and experiences, many of them appreciate this aspect of their day in which they get to partake in activities that make them feel alive, according to AP. 

There was a recent occasion in which a group of women congregated in the same room for group exercise. With their hands on their hips and chairs for balance, these women moved through the workout, lifting their arms and legs and swaying side to side, with giggles and conversation spanning a room of three dozen 80 and 90 year olds.

After group exercise, the women sit down for a kosher meal together. Sometimes, the meals vary in themes and food options, like a pizza night that happens periodically. At one table sat Lilly Klein, 94; Shirely Fernbach, 92; and Berta Einhorn, 89. All three were born in Hungary and were forced into the death march to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as well as Auschwitz. Despite sharing so many similar experiences, these women did not meet each other until they came together at Nachas decades later.

There are other centers following a similar mission just in New York alone. Club Nissim, a few blocks over, offers Holocaust survivors a variation of activities, including trips to museums and parks, arts and crafts activities, movie screenings and cooking lessons.

According to AP, these activities are meant to replicate those that the survivors might have missed because of childhoods that lacked simple childish pleasures. Nissim recently sponsored a slumber party for the women, an event that ended with a pancake breakfast in the morning. 

Both Nachas and Nissim provide an opportunity to provide joy to people who have had to live through intense hardships. “This is a good place,” explains Einhorn. “It just keeps us going a little.”