E. Bay survivors share stories, concerns at Cafe Europa

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Now that more than 50 years have passed since the liberation of Europe, most Holocaust survivors are entering their senior years.

And like many seniors, they struggle to cope with the natural changes that come with aging: illness, retirement, deaths of close friends. But the No.1 challenge facing many survivors is a profound sense of isolation.

So Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay's Holocaust Survivor Services, along with Tikvah, the Bay Area Network of Holocaust Survivors and Their Families, have created Cafe Europa, a place where survivors and children of survivors gather at monthly kaffee klatsches at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

They meet not only to discuss Holocaust issues, but to enjoy a shmooze and a nosh.

Even though many who immigrated to the United States built successful careers and created families here, the wartime loss of their first families and communities was "a real break, a rupture that's kind of unbridgeable," says Yoka Verdoner, coordinator of JFCS' Holocaust Survivor Services.

In addition, the natural consequences of aging, including the loss of friends and relatives, often create more intense feelings of loss for survivors because they find themselves remembering friends and family they lost during the Holocaust.

A child survivor of the Holocaust in Holland, Verdoner has found survivors can ease these stresses "by getting together and forming a new community."

It can be "very healing," she says.

The May and June gatherings attracted at least two dozen people each. Verdoner says those who come are relieved to be with people who don't expect them to explain what it's like to be a survivor.

That can be a refreshing change from the more common experience of survivors in the wider community, says Odette Myers, president of Tikvah.

"They are solicited all the time to either come and speak about their experience to schools or give family photos to museums," she says. "They are considered…so based in history that sometimes everybody wants something from them."

Even for Verdoner, who is an expert on survivors' issues, there were some pleasant surprises at Cafe Europa.

For instance, she noticed that even though many survivors find it hard to talk with their own adult children about the Holocaust, many are able to talk seriously with those outside their families, including second-generation survivors who come to the cafe without their own parents.

The way survivors relate their own Holocaust experiences to their children vary greatly, she adds.

"In some families it was spoken of all the time," she says. "In others it was never mentioned."

Ted Feldman, executive director of JFCS of the East Bay, estimates that there are about 700 survivors in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, which his agency serves. In addition to the more than two dozen who have discovered Cafe Europa, about a dozen have participated in other Holocaust Survivor Services programs, which offer counseling, financial assistance and help in negotiating the health-care system.

Holocaust Survivor Services also provides in-home social service assessments to link survivors with other community resources and assists with long-term planning. The organization also helps survivors find therapists who specialize in Holocaust issues. In-home help is available as well.

These services are all possible through a three-year grant of $100,000 to the agency in March from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Robert Kane, JFCS board president, said the East Bay agency hopes to raise funds to continue the program for survivors and their children when the grant expires.

Verdoner will begin an activities group for East Bay survivors at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18 on "Being a Grandparent: How Do you Do It?" at JFCS of the East Bay.

She also will begin an 8-week discussion group for children of Holocaust survivors at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 11 at the same location.