50 years later, new service launched to help survivors

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Life as a Holocaust survivor "is not a normal way to get old," said Odette Myers.

It means ending your days far from the country where you were born, lacking an extended family, missing the continuity of family and community life.

It can also mean being haunted by terrifying memories, said Myers of Berkeley, who is president of Tikvah, the Bay Area network of Holocaust survivors and their families.

This is why, 50 years later, Tikvah and Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay created the Holocaust Survivor Services.

"Survivors are aging now, and some need help connecting to community services," said Yoka Verdoner, coordinator of the new Holocaust Survivor Services with the JFCS of the East Bay. She and Myers, both born in the 1930s, survived the Holocaust as children.

"Some need help with housing," Verdoner said. "Some need help with long-term care planning."

Funded by a three-year grant out of reparation funds provided by the German government, the Holocaust Survivor Services will provide critical psychological help as well as aid survivors in connecting with community resources. Professionals will provide short-term consultation and long-term care planning as well as in-home visits to assess the need for social services.

The services also provide support groups and activities for survivors and their families, as well as short-term counseling by therapists who are experienced in working with Holocaust survivors.

"The fact that more than 50 years has passed does not mean that all the healing has taken place," said Theodore Feldman, executive director of the JFCS of the East Bay.

"My experiences with survivors over the years, and particularly visits to Poland, have reminded me of the enormous physical and emotional toil the Holocaust has taken on the Jewish psyche."

The new service was inaugurated last month with its first "Cafe Europa" at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center. A second monthly gathering of Holocaust survivors and their families will take place Sunday, June 16.

The event was of as much interest to the adult children of survivors as to the survivors themselves, Verdoner said. Some adult children of survivors even came on their own.

"It felt like a relief to each group — survivors and children — to speak about these issues with each other," said Verdoner, who helped lead last month's meeting. Whether survivors talk to their families about their wartime experiences or remain silent, the Holocaust continues to plague these families, she said.

"Where it was a family secret, it was always a burden on the children, who often wished to protect their parents," Verdoner said. "So it was difficult for the adult child to become who they might be."

Associating with other people touched by the Holocaust not only allows survivors and their families to share their similar problems, but removes the stress of talking to people who sometimes treat Holocaust survivors as historical curiosities

Survivors "have a burden because they have lived through history, and now they're made answerable to it as survivors," Myers said.

Holocaust survivors like to be together "in the same way people say Israel is the only place they don't think about being Jewish."