Sandi Bachom's Posts (3)

Opinion

Here’s how we can preserve the dignity of aging Holocaust survivors

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The Flatbush Jewish Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., hosts gatherings for Holocaust survivors and volunteers who provide companionship and support. (Stephen Shames/JFNA)

(JTA) — Nazi death marches crippled Mr. Cohen’s knees. The 94-year-old who survived Auschwitz now felt defeated trying to climb the stairs to his walk-up condo. He and his wife of 66 years used to be highly active in the Holocaust survivor community and frequently spoke at schools, but the onset of her dementia, and his now frequent falls, have stopped him in his tracks.

But thanks to a grant from the Jewish Federations of North America’s Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care and the commitment of his local federation, Mr. Cohen’s Jewish family service agency hired a nurse to come to the couple’s home. While the nurse could help Mr. Cohen bathe and dress, she struggled to understand why putting on his special compression stockings and shoes made him so anxious.

With further help from the JFNA grant, the nurse received training in Person-Centered, Trauma-Informed (PCTI) care, which helped her to better understand the unique psychological and emotional sensitivities of Holocaust survivors and adapt her care accordingly. Through the training, she came to understand how important Mr. Cohen’s feet were to him — the feet that carried him miles and miles through snow and mud.

Now that his nurse knows to take special care with his feet, Mr. Cohen no longer struggles to leave his home. He can remain part of the community and avoid social isolation.

The Cohens’ story is one of over 8,000 success stories made possible by JFNA’s Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care and local federations. Powered by a federal grant and money raised by federations across the country, JFNA’s program is revolutionary both for its national reach and its use of PCTI techniques. PCTI care promotes the dignity, strength and empowerment of trauma victims and helps caregivers respond to Holocaust survivors in culturally appropriate ways. Since the program’s launch, it has trained 2,000 professional caregivers in PCTI techniques and supported 300 family caregivers.

Thanks to the PCTI model, more Holocaust survivors are receiving the care and support they need, like the 80-year-old man in California who is discovering the wonders of yoga for relaxing his mind and easing his back pain. Or the survivors in Kansas who are spirited away to happier times with concerts of old Yiddish songs. Or the man in Florida who, thanks to the therapy he received, was able to recognize that his anxiety attacks were being triggered by fears that his declining vision left him vulnerable to capture by wartime enemies. PCTI care can help survivors deal with the triggers associated with aging.

Innovative programs supported by the center, shared with a vast social service network, are also helping people beyond our community. Besides Holocaust survivors, PCTI techniques can help other aging traumatized peoples such as veterans, refugees and victims of abuse.

Though we celebrate the center’s tremendous impact over its first two years, we dare not rest. As co-chairs, we are deeply aware that for every survivor we help, there are dozens more who need these services. Of the 100,000 to 130,000 survivors in the U.S., many are in their upper 80s or older and one in four lives in poverty. As a group, survivors are at a significantly higher risk for depression, social isolation, declining health and the negative outcomes associated with institutionalization where unfamiliar showers, uniforms, accents and regimented schedules can trigger traumatic experiences.

The center’s proven effectiveness in helping survivors is why Congress recently approved funding for a third round of grants guaranteed to keep this work going for another two years — but it isn’t enough. And thrilled as we are that federations have successfully met the preliminary $45 million fundraising goal, it must only be the beginning. Holocaust survivors in poverty need food, medical help, dental care, hearing aids and housing assistance, none of which the federal grant is authorized to provide. And as survivors grow older, their needs grow greater with each passing day.

As Jews, we are charged with respecting the elderly and caring for the most vulnerable. Especially with Holocaust survivors, who have known unfathomable cruelty, it’s on us to let them know they will never be forgotten or abandoned. Each of us has something to contribute.

Contact your local Jewish family services or nursing home for volunteer opportunities to work with Holocaust survivors. We know that for many survivors, nothing makes their day like a visit or a phone call from a friend. Contact your local federation or family service agency to learn about your community’s Holocaust survivor fund, or consider donating to the Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care. The center is currently accepting applications from local service providers.

These heroes deserve to live with dignity. It’s up to us to act quickly.

(Todd Morgan and Mark Wilf are the co-chairs of the Jewish Federations of North America National Holocaust Survivor Initiative.)

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By Sandi Bachom

“I’m happy to be in Auschwitz, if I wouldn’t be happy I’d still be in Auschwitz, might as well be happy”

— Werner Reich, Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1944
In 1944, the year I was born, Werner Reich was a teenager in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, and under the supervision of the infamous Josef Mengele, a.k.a. “The Angel of Death.”

Werner was one of the “Birkenau Boys,” a group of 96 kids arbitrarily singled out by Mengele to be kept alive as slave laborers. Five thousand naked boys ran in the yard before Mengele as the SS officers told him a joke. If the joke was funny and he laughed, you ran straight to your death. If the joke was not funny and he got bored and looked up, you were spared. The selections in the death camps were unspeakable and random. Ninety-six survived out of 5,000. Spared, it seems... because of a bad joke.

They are the last eyewitnesses. They are our most precious resource. The importance of preserving these oral histories is essential, which is why Steven Spielberg’s documenting 55,000 survivor interviews for his Shoah Foundation is such profound work. It is through the telling and sharing of these stories that humanity heals.

I once knew a Shoah interviewer; to the best of my recollection these are the four questions. I urge you to get out your iPhones and record any of these folks you may know and put them up on YouTube. Do it now!

1. What was life like before?
2. What happened?
3. What was life like after?
4. In 100 years, what would you like people to remember?

This week are the Holocaust Remembrance Days (Yom HaShoah). It is the solemn occasion, marking the 70th year of the murder of six million Jews, and the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Simply put, my meeting with Werner changed my life! When I am in my travails and in need of hope, I think of this day we spent with Mikal, Ella, Carl, Eva and Werner. Since Werner is a great “punner” and loves a good laugh, we would email endlessly about the healing of humor and laughter and he would send me articles like,“Humor as a defense mechanism in the Holocaust.” I’m not sure what made me ask the question, “Was there was any laughter in Auschwitz?” He said a remarkable thing which has gotten me through some dark nights of the soul.

“We laughed more than you night think, we had joke-telling sessions practically every night. First we would talk about the components of food in great detail, and we would tell jokes.”

I asked him if he remembered any of the jokes and he repeated one in German which he translated. “I’m happy to be in Auschwitz, if I wouldn’t be happy I’d still be in Auschwitz, might as well be happy.”

Werner has taught me how to survive the unsurvivable... with humor. He has devoted his entire life to this day, traveling and speaking about his experiences in the Holocaust with his PowerPoint presentation, of which he is quite proud. His mission: to teach children what happened, so it won’t happen again.

Several years ago, I had the great honor of filming 70 survivors in Newport Beach on a joyous day, when survivors shared their stories to the teens at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma ‘a lot they were asked what one thing they would like to have remembered by the young people and they all had the same message. “Never again... never forget and forgiveness.”

There was one last remarkable story Werner told us — about how he learned magic. As my father was a magician, I was intrigued when he told me it was from his bunkmate in Auschwitz-Birkenau. A talent with coins and a deck of “dirty cards” his bunkmate also shared with their Nazi jailers, and which most probably saved both their lives.

Unbeknownst to the teenage Werner at the time, he was none other than, Hebert Nivelli, “The Great Nivelli” known as “The Magician of the Holocaust.” But to him it was a man named Levin.

After the horrors of the war, Werner and his wife Eva, settled in Great Neck, Long Island. He became a magician himself, entertaining at the local temples and Hadassah’s. One day he was reading in the Linking Ring magazine...

“I was reading the obituaries, no, I was not looking for my own name, and I see Herbert Nivelli had died and that he had been in Auschwitz and was known as The Magician of the Holocaust and I noticed his number was close to mine. It appeared, Nivelli’s Tattoo was #A1676 and mine is #A1828.”

And he realized, “That’s the guy, the very guy...” who was his bunkmate, Herbert Nivelli, the Magician of the Holocaust and that his name was Levin. Nivelli spelled backwards.

Werner recognized the man who saved his life, by his tattoo!

“Why didn’t you know his name?” I asked. “Because, at that time in Europe, children did not address adults by their first names.”

I am profoundly grateful to Mikal Reich for introducing me to his father Werner and beautiful mother Eva, who was herself, a member of the Kinder Transport. At one point, Werner was telling the story of the Death March and how cold it was and he actually lost his toes because of it, and they came upon a barn and he sought warmth under the body of a horse, I believe.

From the other room Eva corrected him... “It was a cow!”

Follow Sandi Bachom on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sandibachom

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