JFCS gives survivors a helping hand — and a community

A sought-after Bay Area speaker, Linda Breder never lacks eager and attentive listeners. But the number of people who can truly understand and identify with the Holocaust survivor is dwindling.

"Every day we are less and less. It's our time," said the Czechoslovakian-born San Franciscan, who was sent to Auschwitz at age 16 in 1941. "But we didn't realize this when we survived. We thought we'd be here forever and ever, because we deserved it after the hell we already went through."

Every week, Breder and anywhere from 12 to 50 fellow survivors gather to kibitz and reminisce as part of the Jewish Family and Children's Services Café by the Bay program in San Francisco. Whether they are discussing their tumultuous pasts or listening to a guest lecturer or musician, members say the experience of meeting and interacting with fellow survivors is vital.

"It's a place where survivors, some of whom are traumatized pretty heavily, can openly and freely socialize with each other and also discuss different situations and have cultural events," said San Franciscan David Orner, who participates regularly. At age 14, he was tossed into a Vienna jail on Kristallnacht and subsequently escaped to pre-state Israel. "For me personally, it serves the purpose of always keeping in mind that there are people who need support and sustenance and also to freely air their concerns, especially as things come up about our past experiences."

Breder likens a Café session to a trip to the psychiatrist.

"Some people are talkers, you know? They want to get the horror out of their system so they'll feel better," she said. "But it is just a good feeling to be in a group of people who went through the same things that we did and understand you."

Café by the Bay is just one of the many JFCS programs for the survivor community. Other services range from assisting with monetary claims and trips to the supermarket to simply being a friend.

Through the friendly visits program, for example, volunteers meet with survivors, one on one, every week.

"They go out together and get coffee, go to the beach, ride through the Marin Headlands — things [survivors] couldn't normally do on their own," said Sheryl Groden, the coordinator of the San Francisco Holocaust survivor services. "We had one volunteer help a survivor write letters back to his friends and family in Europe because his hands were too arthritic. Another volunteer visits a survivor who's in a wheelchair, and just spends a lot of time pushing him in the chair. It's a chance to get out of the assisted care facility he's in."

JFCS also offers discussion groups for those who missed the worst of the Shoah but still feel its effects. There's a program for the children of survivors and a new group for Jews who emigrated from Europe before 1940.

One such emigrant is Freda Reider, of San Francisco. Her father, like most of the other Jews in Baden, Austria, was arrested and jailed on Kristallnacht. Sensing the gathering storm, the family fled first to Vienna, then Genoa, Italy, finally setting sail for America when the war was already two weeks old.

Boarding the Condisavoia on its last civilian voyage, the family was among perhaps two dozen refugees on a passenger ship filled mostly with Americans who sympathized with the Nazis.

"We would be scared of them, too," recalled Reider. "Every time one of them saw us, they would say disgusting, terrifying things."

While not comparing her experiences to those who remained in Europe, Reider stressed that she and fellow nick-of-time emigres "have things to share."

"We talk about how their families were affected during the war. Many lost some of their immediate families because people thought they'd send their children out and then get out later, but they were murdered," she said. "Or we talk about the fact that many people didn't feel like leaving. They could have left but didn't leave; they were so attached to the way of life and possessions they had. Some might have come from the upper-middle class and had all these grand homes with fantastic antiques. They wanted to stay with their things and they lost everything, along with themselves."

For more than a few participants of JFCS survivor programs, attending the weekly or monthly meetings or enjoying home visits or outings may comprise a large portion of their social lives.

"These programs are very helpful in getting people together. Many times it is the only way people feel they have to get out of the house," said Breder. "I know my husband and I pick up people who don't drive. Every time we have three people we take along. Otherwise, they wouldn't go. It's a blessing to have a program like this."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.