For Israeli Shifra Fyne, 83, this week’s journey to Los Angeles will be her first time leaving Israel in 56 years, and her first trip ever on an airplane.
Yehuda Goldstein is making the same trip. He hopes to reconnect with John Gordon, an L.A. resident he met last year in Israel. They think they grew up in the same pre-World War II neighborhood in Budapest.
Avi Levie, originally from Slovakia, hopes to find his sister, Erna Muhlstein. They were separated after the war and he thinks she might be living in the United States.
Fyne, Goldstein and Levie are among 20 travelers coming to Los Angeles in association with Cafe Europa, an international social club for Holocaust survivors that started in Los Angeles with funding from Jewish Family Service and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Last year, a group from Los Angeles made its first voyage to Israel to meet with Cafe Europa members there. This year, a group from Israel is making the trip to Los Angeles, also for the first time.
Cafe Europa’s weekly meetings, held in a variety of settings, allow survivors to recapture the joy that was brutally taken from their youth. On a recent sunny Sunday in Tel Aviv, some 75 Cafe Europa members gathered at the elegant and spacious Golda and Yehuda Zucker Senior Citizens’ Day Center, with its outdoor fountain and garden that could have been drawn out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Participants included Helen Segev, a 76-year-old grandmother with red-tinted hair, who stepped outside the noise of the dance hall to recount what happened to her at age 14. Segev, the middle of three daughters, was grabbed by the Gestapo while her mother — powerless to help — hastily escaped with the rest of the family. She rolled up her sleeve, showing the number tattoo she received in the concentration camp.
“Most of the people here are survivors that had been hidden,” she said in English with a Flemish accent. “Most hadn’t survived the camps like me.”
The tattoo near her elbow has faded to a soft blue over the years, and the numbers have merged together.
Segev prefers to look forward, especially to the L.A. trip.
“I am beyond excitement,” she said.
“Varda!” she yelled, pointing to a woman across the courtyard, “She’s another one I convinced to go to L.A.”
Cafe Europa began in Los Angeles in 1986. The Tel Aviv club opened in 2001 to serve that city’s 30,000 Holocaust survivors. During its inaugural weeks, the Tel Aviv club scheduled lectures and various talks, but that didn’t last long, because the seniors preferred to dance, said Marilyn Fefer, projects coordinator for the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, which sponsors Cafe Europa.
For three and a half years, the Los Angeles and Tel Aviv clubs communicated face-to-face by videoconferencing. Then, last year, the L.A. group sent 14 survivors plus staff and lay people to meet with their Israeli counterparts in Tel Aviv. There they toured Masada and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum as part of their weeklong visit.
Not long after, the Israelis were asking when they could go to Los Angeles — even though the average age of the would-be travelers was 75. Group members are paying most of their expenses, although outside organizations are helping, just as they do with regular Cafe Europa events.
In Los Angeles, the visitors will be hosted at Jewish homes. Over their nine-day stay, they’ll meet with schoolchildren, tour museums and rekindle memories with their L.A. counterparts — as well as visit area attractions such as Universal Studios.
“Café Europa is about life,” says Susie Forer-Dehrey, associate executive director of Jewish Family Service, the agency that brought the two groups together. ”It allows survivors to learn from each other and gives them a comfortable place where they don’t have to explain the past. Everyone in the group understands.”
The two groups will commemorate Yom HaShoah, including a visit to the Holocaust memorial by artist Bernard Baruch Zakheim at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuaries. This year’s remembrance will mark 60 years since the Russian army entered the Auschwitz death camp and shut it down.
Those dark years contain dark memories for 75-year-old Channa Dercin. She resisted talking at first, preferring instead to listen to the singer at the mid-April Tel Aviv social. Dercin’s story was tough. One brother left to Lodz ghetto as a volunteer laborer for the Nazis, thinking that would save his family. He was never heard from again. Her father died in the ghetto of starvation — he gave his food rations to the children. All the remaining family members ended up in work or death camps or both. Dercin’s mother died just after liberation.
As for Dercin, she’d injured her knee while collecting logs in the forest near the Bergen-Belsen death camp. A Nazi SS officer saw her limping and threw her to the ground, knocking her unconsciousness. Some time later, two men picked her up and threw her into a wagon while on their rounds collecting the dead. She was dropped off among the dead and dying at an infirmary. There she met a local Polish woman who would later help reunite Dercin with her family members. One of Dercin’s brothers survived, but she never saw her four other siblings again.
Dercin had been willing to share her story, but she was more interested in watching the chicken dance and the kissing dance, in which a man held an unfolded napkin and waved it in the air. He then danced around several women and dropped the napkin in front of one woman. They both went down to their knees and kissed. Then, the woman took the napkin, and began dancing around the men.
Maybe these seniors haven’t found eternal youth, but for these survivors life is something to make the most of.
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