Jewish Journal

Americans don’t forget Eastern Europe’s survivors

by Jane Ulman

November 22, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Mina S. with Zane Buzby in Belarus. Photo by Ludmila M.

Mina S. with Zane Buzby in Belarus. Photo by Ludmila M.

Galina Isakovna's life has never been easy.

She was 3 months old in 1922 when a pogrom broke out in her Belarusian village. As a band of anti-Semitic thugs stormed her family's home, her mother quickly stashed her under a bed. When the intruders entered the room, cutting up the feather pillows with bayonets, her mother prayed that her baby wouldn't cry. Miraculously, the entire family survived.

During World War II, Galina served as one of the Russian army's first women aerial gunners and as a bombardier mechanic. She fought on the Second Ukrainian Front, and when her arm was mangled in an attack, part of a bone was replaced with a metal plate.

Today she's confined to a wheelchair, disabled with multiple ailments, and she rarely leaves her apartment in Brest, Belarus, because she can't navigate the staircase.

Despite her infirmities, she has cared for her bedridden husband -- feeding, washing and repositioning him; changing his linens; and reading to him from Jewish newspapers -- for the last 13 years. She is ill herself, yet she cried to God to stay alive so she could continue tending to him.

But when she received $300 and was able to buy a washing machine, her life improved; she was no longer exhausted from washing all her husband's clothing and soiled bed sheets by hand. And when he died last August, after languishing in a coma from a second stroke, she got another $600, enough to pay for his burial and tombstone.

"I didn't think I could survive it, but now I want to live a little," she said.

Galina's renewed sense of hope for her future -- for the chance to relax and to read and memorize her beloved poems about Victory Day -- comes as a result of the work of comedy director/producer Zane Buzby and the Survivor Mitzvah Project, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that brings direct financial assistance to about 700 elderly and ill Holocaust survivors in Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Lithuania.

"These are people who have fallen through the cracks and have nowhere to turn," said Buzby, who is determined to drastically improve as many lives as she can.

Buzby is accomplishing her goal with the help of philanthropist and fellow Angeleno S. Chic Wolk, with whom she co-founded the Survivor Mitzvah Project in 2004, and with Russian translator Sonia Kovitz, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, who joined them in 2005. All are volunteers.

The three malokhim fun Amerike (angels from America), as the survivors call them, assist not only by sending money but also, and even more critically, by providing friendship and hope to people who are among Eastern Europe's poorest, loneliest and most forsaken Jews.

Additionally, they are helped by Ludmila M., a Belarusian non-Jewish English teacher "with a heart of gold," according to Buzby, as well as an aging survivor in Moldova, who is destitute himself and asked not to have his identity revealed.

Many of the survivors, currently ages 70 to 100, are ill with such ailments as heart disease, diabetes, digestive disorders and thyroid cancer. Many never married, others have outlived their spouses and children and some are caring for disabled or mentally ill offspring.

Additionally, many have limited or no vision, and most have no teeth. And almost all experience numbing loneliness, some because they are immobile and confined to a walk-up apartment, and some because they are the sole surviving Jew in their family or village.

Since they are not officially Holocaust survivors -- they were not imprisoned in ghettos or concentration camps -- they are not eligible for reparations from the German government. Nonetheless, they were forced to flee their homes and lost everything, often including parents, siblings, a spouse or fianc�(c), children and all personal belongings, even photographs.

"I don't remember what my mother looked like. I don't remember her face," Taya S. of Ukraine told Buzby.

Whatever pensions or savings accounts they had accumulated were obliterated when the communist regimes of the former Soviet Union collapsed. Prior to that time, depending on their ages, they also suffered through the Russian Revolution, World War I, the famines of the 1930s, World War II, Stalin and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

"These people have not gotten one break since the day they were born," Buzby said.

What the Survivor Mitzvah Project does for these survivors -- and what other Jewish social service organizations, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), cannot do because monetary gifts are taxable, according to JDC CEO Steven Schwager -- is provide direct cash allotments, enabling them to supplement their meager pensions, often as low as $16 a month, to purchase essential and specific foods, medications and services.

For Raza S., the money covered a $400 eye operation that returned her sight. For Hirsh P., the funds provided three new, well-fitting windows in his 80-year-old apartment that now protect him and his wife from the icy winds of winters past. And Nina B., who suffers from diabetes and kidney problems, can now receive insulin and other vital medications.

"A dollar or $1.50 a day can make a substantial difference to these people," said Buzby, who would ideally like to provide each one with $50 to $100 per month. But with about 700 individuals needing help, and with limited resources, this is not possible.

While Buzby is always doing triage, making critical decisions about how the funds are distributed, she stresses that all the monies go directly to the survivors, whose economic situation has been carefully vetted beforehand. There is no paid staff, and any expenses, such as postage, are covered by her or Wolk.

Buzby disperses funds through a complicated and secure network, either as checks or cash sent through registered mail or money wired to local couriers. And this past August, she herself took an emotional 16-day whirlwind trip to Lithuania and Belarus, distributing $25,000, as well as mezuzahs, Stars of David and other small gifts such as magnifying glasses and compact mirrors, to about 100 survivors, whom she met in person for the first time.

"For me to go there and for them to know someone came to see them was so astounding," Buzby said.

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