Hardship after the Holocaust: Having endured the worst, many survivors now face poverty, isolation

After surviving war, deportation and Auschwitz, 84-year-old Helen Taub never expected to face extreme hardship a second time. When the world and the Jewish community said “Never again,” she thought they meant it.

Today Taub tries to stuff her medical bills neatly in a letter-size envelope. No go. There are too many. They spill out, cluttering the kitchen table.

Taub cannot pay these bills. On her meager fixed income, she can barely afford the Oakland condo she has called home for 40 years.

Typical of other survivors, she has dental problems (her bridges don’t fit) and aural woes (her hearing aids aren’t quite right). Her hearing problems actually began years ago, in Auschwitz, when a Nazi camp guard kicked the then-teenage Traub in the head.

Suffering from asthma, she can no longer walk around Lake Merritt — located two blocks away — as she did for years up until recently.

“I go to the doctor,” Taub says, dressed in an elegant long-sleeve blouse that covers the numbered arm tattoo she received at the death camp. “He says ‘What you went through, it’s a miracle you’re still OK. You don’t look like you’re 84.’ I say I feel like I’m 100 years old.”

Support from Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay helps. A quarterly check from the German government helps. Like all Holocaust survivors, the Czech-born Taub is entitled to reparations money, but it’s not enough.

She knows she is better off now than she was as a girl, eating cockroaches as survival food in the death camps. But suffering from myriad health problems, she faces crushing debt, even poverty.

“I cannot take it anymore,” Taub says. “Sitting in the house now, I’m very sad.”

This isn’t how it was supposed to be for Holocaust survivors.

While many older adults face the challenges of aging, a contrite world was supposed to make it up to survivors for the horrors they endured. Those who came to America were supposed to rebuild their lives, achieve success and live out their golden years in dignity.

For many, that indeed came to pass. But for a significant number of the estimated 120,000 Holocaust survivors remaining in the United States, life is a constant struggle.

Taub’s problems are common, according to Elie Rubenstein, executive director of the Blue Card, a New York­–based organization that assists indigent Holocaust survivors. The number of referrals coming its way from JFCS and other social service organizations “is significantly up,” Rubenstein says.

Health problems are a big issue. Like Taub, many survivors need dental care resulting from malnutrition and other traumas suffered during the war years.

Helen Taub photo/dan pine

Making matters worse, “Many [survivors], when they came to the United States, were afraid to go to the dentist,” Rubenstein adds. For them, it was too close to being “strapped in the chair.”

“Another huge need is a hearing aid,” he continues. “It’s very expensive, and Medicaid doesn’t cover it.”

Adding to their woes: the recession. Many adult children of survivors ”can’t provide assistance to their parents anymore,” Rubenstein adds.

The Blue Card currently is helping 1,700 households — providing such things as emergency cash assistance, multivitamins, a telephone emergency “lifeline” system and more.

The average income for Blue Card grantees: less than $12,000 a year.

A United Jewish Communities report published several years ago looked at people originally from Europe and the former Soviet Union whose lives were torn asunder by the Nazis and who now live in the United States. It found that 25 percent of such people live in poverty.

Factoring in the current recession, many of those survivors and other U.S. residents who suffered Nazi aggression today face increasing illness, isolation and depression. And time is not on their side.

Though the number of survivors inexorably declines every year, the financial, social and medical needs of those remaining increases.

As Holocaust program coordinator for Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay, Rita Greenwald Clancy has seen that perverse calculus in action. She serves as Taub’s case manager, as well as that of 270 other survivors in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

She says her clients today are worse off than they were several years ago. “People think [survivors] are living well in the United States,” Clancy notes, “but expenses are going up. Many have bad health because of what they sustained early. They are at high risk for dementia, for hypertension, and they have high rates of suicide.”

Anita Friedman, the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, has seen similar cases among the survivors her agency serves. As much as JFCS strives to help them, she admits some will endure extreme hardship, especially as new state budget cuts take effect.

“Benefits are being cut for everybody, not just survivors,” Friedman says. “The cuts mean people will get less government-funded home care and food programs. They will cut some of the ancillary services, like dental care. So the Jewish community and we will be asked to provide more.”

Adult day care programs have also been slashed, with the state paying for only three days a week per person, down from five days.

That’s bad news for Samuil Gorodenskiy. The grandson of a rabbi, the shtetl-born Russian barely survived the 1941 siege of Leningrad (he spent months hiding in an underground hospital, huddling next to a wood stove to keep warm). After immigrating to the United States in 1997, Gorodenskiy, 90, qualified for Social Security. He and his wife, Zhenya, now live on about $1,100 a month.

They had been coming five days a week to L’Chaim Adult Day Health Center, a JFCS-run social services center located in San Francisco’s Sunset District that serves Russian-speaking, mostly Jewish, seniors.

Due to budget cuts, the center now limits personal visits for the Gorodenskiys and 200 other clients to three days a week.

And that often leads to a domino effect on the system: Seniors who need care now need to be cared for at home, but most likely can’t afford those services, which means family members or others are pressed into caregiver duty, which leads to more family stress — and perhaps results in previously avoidable institutionalization.

“[Samuil] needs physical therapy and occupational therapy at least five days a week,” says Anna Borovik, the center’s program director. “It’s not a treatment. It’s maintenance. A majority [of clients] tells us they decline the days they are not here exercising. To get up, shower, dress, and you have a place to go. When you do all that, you feel better.”

“If not for L’Chaim we would stay at home,” Zhenya says, “and who knows what we would do? [Samuil] gets up, knows he has a place to go. Then he is a human being when he comes home. He starts complaining, has pain all over his body.”

For too many of Borovik’s clients, 99 percent of whom are Jewish and who lived through the World War II, she says, “their only domestic partner is pain. It’s always by their side.”

Greg Schneider prefers the term “Nazi victims” to “Holocaust survivors.” As executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (better known as the Claims Conference), he keeps track of 550,000 elderly victims around the world.

Samuil Gorodenskiy and wife Zhenya photo/dan pine

Some of them lived through the concentration camps. Some fled Europe as refugees, leaving everything behind. Others from the former Soviet Union, such as the Gorodenskiys, spent the war years hiding in forests or fleeing eastward.

All are Nazi victims. Some are concentration camp survivors. Schneider cares about them all. And he, too, sees their condition worsening.

“It is no surprise to us there are Nazi victims falling through the safety net,” he says. “Some countries have no safety net. In the former Soviet Union they are in worse condition. But even in Western countries like the United States, there are survivors who fall between the cracks.”

Formed in 1951, the Claims Conference has negotiated more than $60 billion in German government payouts to Nazi victims. Some of that is in the form of one-time checks, some in quarterly payments to former concentration camp prisoners, and some in block grants to agencies like JFCS to assist survivors in need.

This year, the conference allocated $25 million in the United States for social services, up $2 million from last year. The S.F.-based JFCS was granted more than $600,000; its counterpart in the East Bay, around $120,000. The money helps pay for food, medicine and other bills. But it cannot cover everything.

While Schneider salutes the many Nazi victims who did rebuild their lives after the Holocaust, he points to what he calls a “silent majority” for whom an undercurrent of devastation persists.

“The extended families were murdered,” he says. “Then you have people who were never able to rebuild their lives, who didn’t marry or didn’t have children. They are far more isolated. They are sicker. Then you have the financial issue. In general you would have generations of accumulated wealth. This is an entire generation that inherited nothing.”

Schneider says German governments over the decades have behaved responsibly and negotiated payments in good faith. But he also says that soon the money available to the Claims Conference will diminish, in part because much of it comes from the liquidation of looted unclaimed Jewish property, a finite commodity.

Arkady and Anna Golodovsky got their Claims Conference checks a few years ago. Each amounted to a little more than $2,000. The money came in handy for the two, who now reside in a subsidized Berkeley apartment.

A pot of tea rests on a trivet. Anna’s just-warmed homemade blintzes fill the air with a sweet aroma. The Golodovskys emigrated from Russia in 1991 to be near their daughter, yet they still embody effusive Russian hospitality.

Arkady’s oil paintings grace the walls. One landscape, of a Russian forest scene, stands out for its contrasting pastoral calm and wildness. Perhaps it’s of a memory from his days in the forest, hiding from a marauding Nazi army.

Arkady and Anna endured horrors during the war, when both fled on foot to escape the Germans. Both lost family members, both experienced hunger and exposure hiding in the forests.

They survived, only to face the anti-Semitism typical

of Soviet life. Coming to America as senior citizens, they enjoyed a modest retirement for several years.

Then they got sick.

Arkady has renal failure and must undergo dialysis several times a week. Anna suffers liver problems. Both are on special diets. With a combined monthly income of less than $1,500, the two cannot pay their bills.

Arkady and Anna Golodovsky photo/dan pine

Clancy, at JFCS of the East Bay, tries to help them. “We have a driver for him if he needs a ride to dialysis,” she says. “If they need help with medical coordination or doctor communication we do that. And we provide financial assistance. We can do that thanks to the grants from the Claims Conference. But these grants are at risk of being decreased and ending in 2010.”

“What we have is very good,” Anna says in halting English. “What we don’t have, we don’t know. But we are thanks for what we get.”

Louis de Groot survived the Holocaust by hiding, first in the city then in the Dutch countryside. Besides him, not one family member survived. At 21, broke and alone, de Groot made his way to the United States.

He joined the army, went to college on the G.I. Bill and earned a master’s degree in economics. He prospered, working for IBM for 27 years and raising a family. With all those blessings, he wanted to give something back. De Groot, 80, now serves on the JFCS advisory committee that oversees Clancy’s work with survivors.

“I survived because people reached out to me,” de Groot says. “So this has been a very important thing for me to do.”

In the 12 years he has worked with JFCS, he has seen deterioration in the quality of life for many local survivors. No one he knows of is homeless yet; no one is reduced to eating cat food for sustenance. But the struggle is real.

“What you see now are people who really have to make decisions between buying their medicine or food, or paying their rent,” de Groot says. “The number of clients keeps growing as the survivor population ages, but the allocations don’t keep up with that.”

Friedman has seen the same phenomenon with the clients JFCS serves. She says fundraising for survivors has been a JFCS priority for the last seven years because the need has grown more urgent.

“We have several people and lawyers who only work on reparations, getting them the money to which they are entitled, ” Friedman says, “and we have several people doing case management, food delivery and social programs.”

One of those care managers is Brian Brown, who coordinates JFCS’ Holocaust Survivor Restitution Program. His caseload includes nearly 200 survivors, some who need occasional monitoring, others requiring more intervention.

“It’s intensifying,” Brown says. “Whereas a few years ago the needs were socialization and transportation, it’s advanced to more home care and now crisis situations needing hands-on attention.”

Case in point: German-born Henry Falkenberg. At 82, he is a longtime fixture at Congregation Keneseth Israel in San Francisco. His family joined the synagogue in 1942 after fleeing the Gurs concentration camp (in Vichy France) and making it to America.

Falkenberg became a diehard San Franciscan, built an insurance business and later became Mr. Everything at his shul. He has served as Torah/Talmud teacher, prayer leader and even chief cook and bottle washer for Shabbat meals.

But after a ­­­­fire gutted his rent-controlled apartment two years ago, his prayers for help were answered by JFCS. The agency swooped in, helped find him a new apartment, paid the deposit, furnished it and even bought new linens.

When Brown discovered Falkenberg’s Holocaust connection, he helped him fill out the lengthy Claims Conference application.

“The applications are traumatic,” Brown says. “You go through your experience in the

Holocaust, identify the core losses you suffered and the family loss. It’s hard for people to do, and some don’t want to go through the anguish and pain.”

Now Falkenberg receives a quarterly check from the Claims Conference. He is grateful for that and for the assistance from JFCS. “If you need help, you need help,” he says. “What are you going to do?”

Helen Taub asks herself the same question.

She grew up in a Czech shtetl, the daughter of observant parents. Though they and most of her extended family died in Nazi gas chambers, she and her two sisters stuck together and survived Auschwitz.

Even today she marvels at her resourcefulness. One cold gray morning, when her sister was about to faint during inspection (which would no doubt have led to her execution), Taub bit down hard on her sister’s finger to snap her out of her daze.

After a few years in a displaced persons camp in Cyprus, she moved to Israel, where she met her first husband, also a survivor. But her brother living in Oakland asked that she come visit. That was more than four decades ago, and she never looked back.

Though she spoke no English, Taub found work in a toy factory. Divorced and raising her son alone, she saved every penny, and after remarrying, she moved to her Oakland condo. She and her late husband, Maurice, opened a key and lock shop on Park Boulevard. They were active with Congregation Beth Jacob.

Eventually, time took its toll. Maurice, 10 years her senior, died in 1999 from heart disease. Her own ailments have worsened, landing her in the hospital three times over the past year. She doesn’t drive anymore, relying on rides from friends and neighbors.

And then there are those bills: $4,000 for hearing aids. $3,500 owed to Kaiser. Thousands more for dental work. With all her savings gone, Traub cannot keep up. “I don’t have no more money,” she says. “I get $1,200 every three months from Germany. And Social Security. This is my money.”

The stress takes a toll. Taub says she can’t even get relief at night.

“When we were young,” she says, “we never think of [the concentration camps]. Now I am old, I cannot sleep at night, thinking about everything what I go through, when we were in Auschwitz [and] my parents. I say, what’s happened to me? Now, my God, every night.”

She still enjoys baking, and every Friday the aroma of fresh-baked challah fills the condo. She gives them to the neighbors. Some go to her synagogue, Beth Jacob, whose congregants regularly check in on Taub.

“The shul is the best in my life,” she says. “When I was in hospital last year everybody came. Rabbi [Judah] Dardik is the best in the world. He came here on vacation and sit for an hour with me. I bake a cake for him, a challah for yontif. Every Shabbos I go there. Everybody loves me. I’m not complaining like other people.”

Love matters, but love alone will not keep Traub and scores of other survivors from fear, illness, isolation and poverty. It requires a firm communal will to provide for those who endured the worst.

“It’s important for us to honor this population,” Clancy says, “and partake in the responsibility of taking care of them with empathy and compassion.”

Adds the Claims Conference’s Schneider: “I often say we judge the generation that came before us. How could they have let it happened? But I think our children will judge us for how we provide for the victims of the Shoah in their final years.”


Cover photo by Cathleen Maclearie

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.