Remembering and Bearing Witness

Last month, there was a fair bit of coverage marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Less attention has been given to the challenges elderly Holocaust survivors face today as a result of the trauma they endured as children.

“Alexi” is one such survivor in our Louisville community. During World War II, before he was 13 years-old, Alexi was evacuated and relocated multiple times within the Soviet Union. Evading the Nazi genocide was only a single chapter in Alexi’s story, as wartime was followed by decades of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism.

Alexi was already in his 60s when JFCS resettled him in Louisville, so the timeline for employment and benefit accrual was painfully short. His English proficiency remains limited, even now. These circumstances are common for many of the 50 Holocaust survivors JFCS served last year.

Alexi and his wife, now in their 80s, live in subsidized housing with a fixed income of only $1,100 per month. Their situation is not unusual. It is estimated that one-third of Holocaust survivors in the U.S. live at or below the poverty line, compared to 10 percent of the general population of seniors who live in poverty.

Alexi has access to the full range of older adult services JFCS provides — including free/subsidized counseling and home care, as well as the Food Pantry. Alexi also receives support to navigate complex medical and benefits systems that would be challenging, even without the language and cultural barriers he faces.

JFCS’s specially trained staff advocates for Alexi and others to receive all the benefits to which they are entitled. This includes monies from national organizations like The Blue Card and Kavod, both of which provide financial assistance to Holocaust survivors in need. The dollars are there, but it would be impossible for Alexi to manage the processes and requirements without the extensive case management JFCS offers.

The physical consequences of childhood trauma present themselves as health issues for many survivors later in life. Severe dental issues are common among those who were malnourished and denied access to medical care during crucial years of growth. Additionally, researchers have found increased cancer development among Holocaust survivors.

Alexi is a case in point of the long-lasting health challenges suffered by so many survivors. The Blue Card and Kavod funds JFCS helped Alexi secure pay a portion of his dentist bills and for products to manage side effects of his cancer treatment.

We all know that time is unstoppable, and there will be fewer survivors with each passing year. As their numbers diminish, we must remember that the needs of these vulnerable community members will only grow as they reach beyond 85 years of age (what some gerontologists describe as “old-old age”).

While JFCS cares for those who suffered so much in the past century, the life and death stakes for today’s refugees are never far from our minds. Though JFCS no longer does initial resettlement, last year we served more than 300 refugees and immigrants with re-credentialing, career laddering, business advisement and micro-lending services.

As we remember the past and bear witness to the plight of refugees in our own day, I invite you to join JFCS and Adath Jeshurun for a celebration of National Refugee Shabbat on Friday, March 20. Services will be followed by a vegetarian potluck dinner and panel discussion featuring refugee experiences and Jewish perspectives.

RSVP now for National Refugee Shabbat: adathjeshurun.com/event/refugeepotluck.

By Deb Frockt, Chief Executive Officer

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