Aviva Sufian Listens and Learns as White House's First Holocaust Survivor Envoy

Quarter of 120,000 American Survivors Live in Poverty

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By Nathan Guttman

Published February 14, 2014.
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Aviva Sufian is in “listening mode.” Less than a month after being appointed to serve as the first ever special envoy for U.S. Holocaust survivor services, she is learning the outlines of her new position by speaking to survivors, service providers and not-for-profit organizations, many of them Jewish.

“This is the last generation of survivors and, as a survivor shared with me last week, if we don’t help now, we will never be able to,” Sufian told the Forward in an email exchange. “The needs are urgent, and our collective response must be as well.” She noted that a key challenge is creating awareness to the fact that an estimated 120,000 elderly Americans are survivors and that it is believed a quarter of them live in poverty.

The Obama administration announced Sufian’s nomination on January 24, following a promise delivered a month earlier by Vice President Joe Biden. “This will make the government more responsive to a Hungarian survivor in the Bronx who needs a wheelchair or the elderly woman with memories of the Warsaw Ghetto who needs a ride to the doctor,” Biden told a gathering marking the centennial anniversary of the Joint Distribution Committee.

Creation of the new position comes, at least for now, with very little resources and it is not clear if new federal funding will be given to program helping survivors. “The Special Envoy position will start with a focus on outreach and advocacy,” Sufian said. “The overall initiative, of which the Special Envoy is a part, will be exploring a range of options and programs, including new opportunities for public-private partnerships to generate additional support for this population.”

The federal government’s key partner in helping American Holocaust survivors are the Jewish Federations of North America, which are already operating programs geared at assisting survivors. Philanthropist Mark Wilf, who heads JFNA’s efforts to work with survivors, said federations are “exploring ways to raise funds to supplement the services many survivors already receive.” According to Wilf, efforts are already underway to reach out to donors and foundations for extra funding.

“Federations have provided tens of millions of dollars over the years for Holocaust survivor services, but we know the need is great and we are working hard to do more,” he said.

As for the government, it is now focusing on building partnerships with groups like JFNA and on harnessing volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA program to work with survivors, but there are no plans for providing new federal funds.

Sufian, a staffer at the department of Health and Human Services, specializes in treating the aging community. She had been involved in the field in previous positions as well, at the Social Security Administration and at the UJA-Federation of New York. Sufian, who described her work with aging as a “sacred responsibility that I take on with humility,” did not grow up in a family of Holocaust survivors. Her grandparents fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe and came to the United States after World War I. They are responsible, she said, to her commitment for hiddur p’nai zaken, the honoring and respecting of one’s elders.

Holocaust survivors make up a distinct constituency within elder Americans. Some are relatively new immigrant that came from the former Soviet Union while others emigrated from Europe shortly after the war. Poverty levels among survivors are higher than in the general aging population, and many survivors have special health and mental needs.

“Holocaust survivors are a special population who endured unspeakable horrors at the beginning of their lives. Because of these experiences, survivors are likely to have greater and more complex physical and mental health needs as they age,” Sufian said.

In addition, Holocaust survivors, in some cases, are averse to institutional care because of their traumatic experience. “We recognize that most Americans want to remain in their homes and communities as they age, and we support policies that promote self-determination and choice,” Sufian added.


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