November 22, 2007
Americans don’t forget Eastern Europe’s survivors
(Page 2 - Previous Page)In Lithuania, a member of the European Union, all 25 survivors affiliated with the Project have bank accounts and can receive checks. In Belarus, Ludmila M., Buzby's "boot on the ground," delivers the funds twice a year to 50 survivors in Brest, Grodno and Pinsk. Another 50, living in scattered villages, are sent their funds in registered letters. The 80 survivors in Ukraine also receive their funds via regular and registered mail.
And in Moldova, where letters are routinely ripped open, Buzby wires the money to her humanitarian survivor, a gentleman in his 80s, who personally delivers the supplements to 320 very needy elderly Jews, traveling to eight different cities several times a year.
"It's a really sad situation," Buzby said, noting that Moldova is not only Europe's poorest country but is also experiencing a severe drought that has reduced crops and raised food prices.
For each survivor, every outgoing payment, as well as all correspondence, is logged in and tracked, and Buzby painstakingly ascertains that the intended recipients receive all monies.
But money is only one part of the mitzvah. The other, equally valuable, is the friendship and hope that Buzby, Wolk and translator Kovitz bring the survivors.
"A letter from America is just as incredibly golden today as it was in 1911," Buzby said, noting that each survivor, except those in Moldova where the mail is unreliable, receives a personal letter, written in Russian, every six to eight weeks, along with an addressed return envelope for the reply. Some have never previously received letters.
Buzby, Wolk and Kovitz send holiday greetings and share their family histories. They also send photos of themselves and their relatives, which occupy places of honor in the survivors' home. The three become family for the survivors, who read and reread their letters, admire the photographs and worry when they don't hear from them.
"I do not feel alone now. I now have, even though at a great distance, a large close family, which is doing a great mitzvah," Fira B. wrote.
"I have the honor to count you in the cohort of my life-savers, who merit the exclusively important role in saving me from death, on a par with those who saved me from the fascists and those who helped me during my eight years in the Stalinist death camp," Aron B. wrote.
"I have been accustomed to hunger since childhood. I wanted at least in old age to live in a human way. Thank you very much that you do not forget me," Raisa K. wrote.
Just six years ago, in 2001, Buzby had no idea that destitute Holocaust survivors were living in these countries. At the time, on hiatus from directing a television comedy pilot, Buzby decided to take a 10-day trip to Belarus to visit and film the former shtetls of her grandmothers, who both immigrated to the United States as young girls.
Buzby had always been passionately attracted to Eastern Europe, studying the "great immigration" and the Holocaust. Stopping first in Lithuania, she attended a presentation at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute by Dr. Dovid Katz, director and founder of the Institute and author, among other books, of "Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish." Katz showed videos of interviews he had conducted with aging Holocaust survivors, traveling to remote villages to document their native Yiddish language and folklore.
When Katz heard about Buzby's planned excursions, he asked her, knowing she had a car with a driver and translator, "if she wouldn't mind" making a few detours to bring food, medicine, American dollars and Yiddish newspapers to eight elderly Jews.
Buzby didn't mind. And the next day, after traveling down a dirt road in the village of Volozhin, she found herself in front of a small green wooden hut.
"Hello, hello?" Buzby called out as she knocked on the door. No one answered. She called out again, "Shalom Aleichem."
Presently, coming around the house from the backyard, a diminutive old man appeared. He was disheveled and dirty, with no teeth, and he carried gardening tools in his hands.
"I'm digging up my potatoes," he explained to Buzby and the translator in a mixture of Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew. "I am 80 years old."
The survivor, Zeydl Katz (no relation to Dovid Katz), invited them inside, to a place that "looked like it had never been cleaned," according to Buzby. He was grateful for the gifts and the company, telling them that he had once been a yeshiva student.
Buzby went on to visit the others on Katz's list and was amazed to see people and life like this.
"I had seen pictures in books, but from 100 years ago," she said, adding that in those villages, where cars were a rarity, she saw barefoot girls leading the family's cow through the streets. She also witnessed residents digging up potatoes and storing them in their root cellars for the winter, along with nuts and berries they had collected in the forests.
Once home, Buzby, who could not get these people out of her mind, began sending them small amounts of money. Not knowing Russian, she would ask anyone who spoke with anything resembling a Russian accent -- strangers at the gas station or the refrigerator repair shop -- to translate a few lines for her. Usually her notes read, "Best wishes for your good health," and she would add a hand-drawn heart and a Star of David.
Eventually the list of eight grew to 35. Dovid Katz, who was continuing his academic expeditions, came across more and more survivors living in dismal poverty. While he would empty his own pockets out on the spot, it was "just an awful frustration" because he knew they'd have nothing afterward. He began forwarding their names and addresses to Buzby.
"I was always looking for someone to take over the humanitarian component and couldn't find anyone till fate and her wonderful hand brought me together with Zane," Katz said.