No one knows exactly how many Holocaust survivors live in Middlesex and Monmouth counties. What is known is that their numbers are increasing, based on information gleaned from the area’s Jewish social services agencies.
Just like many other 70-, 80-, and 90-year-olds, the survivors are moving close to their children who decades ago left the boroughs of Manhattan, choosing to raise their children in central New Jersey.
Yet as much as they are similar to other seniors, Holocaust survivors share a history that makes them very different. After all, they’ve managed to live long lives despite being the targets of a movement determined to annihilate them.
The first official act of the Nazis’ systematic extermination program occurred on the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938. Commonly known as Kristallnacht, the Night of the November Pogrom or the Night of Broken Glass, that was when mobs throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland torched Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses; vandalized Jewish cemeteries; and sent some 30,000 Jews to concentration camps.
So the month of November is an appropriate time to call attention to those who survived that pogrom and the hell that followed. Their survival is testimony to their strength, both physical and mental. Ideally, all survivors would have gone on to live lives filled with love, children, and comfort; in reality many struggled. Now in their later years, those struggles are becoming even harder to cope with.
Some are succumbing to physical and mental challenges they managed to avoid when younger. They are also dealing with increasing medical costs and the challenges of navigating a complex health care system. Plus, 61 percent are now living below the poverty line, according to The Blue Card, a non-profit that aids needy Holocaust survivors. Add to the mix the diseases of aging, including dementia, and the result is a witch’s brew of obstacles.
The area’s Jewish social service agencies, Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County (JFS) and Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Monmouth County (JFCS) — agencies of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ — accept cases regardless of an individual’s ability to pay. Both report an increase of at least 20 percent in requests for services. As a result, both agencies have been forced to place people on wait lists.
Think about it: People who went through the horrors of the Holocaust, who managed to craft lives despite having lost the signposts of their pre-war existence, who now in their twilight years are turning to the Jewish community for help, are being told that they must be patient and wait.
They deserve better. And help may be on the horizon.
Jewish Federations of North America’s new chairman, Mark Wilf of Livingston, a child of survivors, is spearheading a nationwide federation effort to raise the dollars needed to provide “person-centered, trauma-informed” supportive services to Holocaust survivors. Our community’s principal service providers are JFS and JFCS.
The task before the case workers is daunting. Each case is, by definition, unique, as every survivor’s experience in the Shoah, and their lives in the years since, have been varied. Addressing each person’s issues requires special skills and sensitivities.
Some of the survivors awaiting treatment immigrated to the U.S. from the countries of the former Soviet Union. Once the war ended, the Soviet government forced them to return to their cities of origin, which had to be traumatic. Then they had to withstand the privations — food shortages, inadequate medical and dental treatment, limited housing options, and restricted educational opportunities. Now they are here, and they are turning to the Jewish community for help.
Many of the European survivors were warehoused in displaced persons camps because their pre-war homes were destroyed or “given” to other people, and they had nowhere else to go. The lucky ones eventually made it to Israel, Canada, or the United States, but even the most fortunate among them bear those invisible scars, and many now need help.
One of my cousins, of blessed memory, was 15 when he was able to get onto a transport to the U.S., and was eventually placed in a former Army training station in Oswego, N.Y. He was one of only 983 Jewish refugee children admitted to the U.S. in 1944, a time when anti-Semitism was prevalent, the concentration camps had not yet been liberated, and people in the U.S. had not yet seen the haunting photographs. The rest of his family was murdered by the Nazis. Many of those children, now adults, have issues most of us will never fully comprehend that must be addressed.
This November offers an opportunity to respond to Kristallnacht by supporting JFS and JFCS, so the wait-lists of survivors needing social services can be cleared. So these extraordinary individuals can receive the help they deserve.
It’s the least we can do.
Visit Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County (JFS) at jfsmiddlesex.org or call 732-777-1940. Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Monmouth County (JFCS) can be reached at 732-774-6886 or by visiting jfcsmonmouth.org.
JoAnn Abraham has held executive marketing and communications positions in Jewish federations. She is on the board of Chhange: The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education, and is a member of Temple Beth Ahm, Aberdeen.