November 22, 2006
Olga Bitterman’s story: Survivors helping survivors
Only later, after watching for the anonymous donor, did the survivor in need -- an elderly woman with heart problems -- discover that it was Bitterman coming to her aid.
"A lot of people are proud," Bitterman said, "but they need help."
Bitterman lives in a beautiful, two-story, three-bedroom house in the upscale neighborhood of Hancock Park. Sitting in her study at a dark wood table, in front of a bookcase filled with Hebrew tomes, Bitterman spoke about the need to help sick and destitute Jews, especially Holocaust survivors.
"We survived so much," said Bitterman, wearing a flowered silk housedress and pearl earrings. The nightmares and terrible memories of the war haunt survivors even more as they grow older, she added. What makes matters worse is that many survivors suffer alone. "They don't have aunts, uncles, nobody," Bitterman said. About four years ago, Bitterman and some survivor friends founded a group to help local Jews in need. Today, she and a handful of volunteers run the Los Angeles Ladies Bikur Cholim. All women, they provide food, funds and company to the poor and sick. They have never turned away anyone who has asked for help, Bitterman said.
Bitterman grew up the eldest of four siblings in the small city of Svaljava, which was then part of Czechoslovakia. After graduating from high school, she worked in her family's textile business until the Nazis deported her, then 20 years old, to Auschwitz. Her job at the camp was to organize the clothes of the dead who had been sent to the gas chambers. After nearly a year of enduring this "hell," as she called it, she was liberated by the Russians.
Bitterman went home after the war, hoping to find surviving relatives. She found no one. Soon after, she met Henry Bitterman, the man who would become her husband. The couple had two children, and in 1962, to escape communist oppression, the family moved to Los Angeles, where a cousin was living.
Olga Bitterman got a job downtown, packing men's neckties for delivery. Her husband found work as a painter. The couple eventually bought a grocery store, which they managed for seven years. Then, they bought a wood factory, which their children now run. (Henry Bitterman, having suffered a stroke nearly a decade ago, remains bedridden and unaware in an upstairs bedroom.)
When Olga Bitterman helps survivors today, she does so in a way that preserves their dignity. After all, that is what her parents taught her to do. Bitterman recalls that when she was a child, her mother would prepare packages of Passover food for the poor. Her mother would then instruct Bitterman to covertly place the packages at the doors of the needy. Bitterman's father, too, used to secretly slip money into the jacket pocket of a poor man at synagogue, so the man could buy food for Shabbat.
This -- a mother's lesson, a father's example -- the Nazis could not take away.
For information on Los Angeles Ladies Bikur Cholim, contact Shuly Berkowitz at (323) 933-1017.