Life After the Holocaust, at 90 and Beyond

Searching for Strategies To Help Scarred Survivors Age With Grace

Life Goes On: Holocaust survivors Barbara Kenig Drotow (left) and Stella Esformes dance at a Purim party hosted by Café Europa early this year at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif.
Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles
Life Goes On: Holocaust survivors Barbara Kenig Drotow (left) and Stella Esformes dance at a Purim party hosted by Café Europa early this year at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif.

By Rachel Rosmarin

Published May 21, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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My grandfather is a rare case. Since my grandmother’s death, in 2008, he has shuttled between homes in Los Angeles and Miami and battled illness after illness, all the while attempting to maintain a social life. He met his energetic and doting 86-year-old Russian Jewish girlfriend at a party in 2009. She takes care of him when he visits Florida, but it’s not a job she can do year-round, so his home base is in L.A. with my parents.

Yet very few survivors live with their adult children; instead they rely on outside help for cleaning, cooking and health care. The New York-based Selfhelp Community Services Inc. provides survivors with in-home health aides up to four hours a day, five days a week. That’s the most care the group can afford to provide to its more than 5,000 clients. “If we went to Brooklyn and put up signs in every kosher butcher shop, we’d have more clients than we could deal with,” said Elihu Kover, vice president of Selfhelp’s Nazi Victims Services.

For historically self-reliant survivors, even accepting a home-care worker is a difficult psychological step. Rigorous sensitivity training helps workers avoid triggering some survivors’ fear and trust issues and allows them to accommodate, not fight, their reactions. Uniforms, religious symbols, classical music, a doctor’s touch, showers and even prolonged goodbyes may set off survivors, according to social workers and psychologists. Paula David, a gerontology professor at the University of Toronto and former coordinator of the Holocaust Resource Project at Baycrest Centre, in Ontario, recalls a staffer at an assisted-living facility who surreptitiously replaced the stale dinner rolls that a survivor insisted upon keeping in his nightstand every night with fresh ones so that they wouldn’t go bad.

Aging survivors crave socialization with peers who share similar life experiences and native languages, and who inherently know the meaning of a tattooed forearm without asking. That’s why Jewish service organizations in every major city emphasize social clubs for survivors, known locally as Cafe Europa. These groups typically meet weekly for lunch, and often feature Jewish-themed films, guest speakers, holiday observances and commemorative ceremonies.

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