Much-needed aid reaches aged Jews in former USSR

The specter of anti-Semitism may haunt the young as well: A food shortage at an orphanage often means Jewish children will be last to eat.

But young people still have the chance to leave for Israel or the West some day, while the elderly who remain behind are mostly too frail or too frightened to go.

If to be alone and abandoned in old age is the universal human nightmare, then the bad dream has come true for these elderly, who struggle to survive on what amounts to a monthly $25 government pension. Rent alone eats up $12 of that.

Now that the ruble has been devalued again, their buying power is further eroded. Their relatives dead — many were killed during the war — or gone to other countries, the Jewish elderly lack a social safety net. None are literally starving, but they go to bed hungry, their small savings long ago wiped out by inflation, leaving them vulnerable to disease and despair.

As recently as six years ago, there was no help for these elderly people at all. But in the past few years, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), funded by UJA Federation dollars, has made a valiant effort to rescue as many as 120,000 by delivering food packages or supplying hot meals. Yet there simply is not enough money to help the more than 200,000 who languish on waiting lists.

In a decaying society, the elderly occupy the last rung of the ladder. Many use a magnifying glass instead of eyeglasses, while others are blind from cataracts and other diseases that are easily treated in the West.

If they enter a hospital, they must bring their own sheets, blankets, food and even bandages.

Recently, two Washington UJA Federation leaders, Dede Feinberg and Elaine Goodman, traveled to Ukraine with nearly 100 other UJA leaders from across the United States. In obscure dwellings where echoes of a tragic past reverberate, they would view the gripping scene of an older Jewish generation's pitiful last chapter.

Not too far from Odessa, the ancient town of Belgorad lies in squalor. Yet even there, rescue efforts are under way, and the Washington leaders have a chance to observe the JDC in action.

Feinberg visited an 84-year-old blind woman called Aunt Frieda, who lived alone in a tiny two-room house with no indoor plumbing. Her children died in the war, and her husband and sister died recently. Her monthly pension of $20 buys only bread, milk and potatoes.

A single chicken costs $12.

Aunt Frieda's kitchen and cupboards were completely bare. The JDC food package was her life preserver. In a plastic supermarket bag were boxes and cans of peas, rice, sugar, spaghetti, tea, buckwheat and condensed milk. The elderly woman would now make a cruel choice: either eat the food or barter it for medicine or fuel to heat the stove or house.

There would never be money for the cataract surgery that could restore her vision.

"When I left, I put my arms around her and hugged her, because no one had hugged her in many years," says Feinberg.