Walk into Café Europa at Westside Jewish Community Center on Tuesdays, or the Valley version in North Hollywood on Thursdays, and you’ll find dozens of elderly men and women, sometimes as many as 60 or 70 of them. Some are frail, some feisty, many are both. They chat, they snack, they listen to lectures or watch movies or play Bingo.
The name itself — Café Europa — sounds romantic, evocative of pre-World War II Europe, of Linzer tortes and intense political discussions and a world that’s disappeared. And, yes, almost all the group members were born in Europe and have European accents.
As you sit and listen to their life stories, you also realize that these men and women share something else: a past that includes ghettos and concentration camps, forced marches, hiding in woods or cellars, starvation, torture, the murder of loved ones. And, after years of unimaginable horror: liberation, Displaced Person camps, coming to the United States, perhaps by way of Israel. The members of Café Europa are Holocaust survivors.
Run by the Jewish Family Service (JFS), Café Europa is a social club where food and entertainment are free. For many of these survivors the day’s program is enjoyable, but often it’s a pretext to catch up, once a week, with friends and acquaintances, people who share a similar background — a time to schmooze over coffee and mandelbread, to talk about what’s happening with the grandchildren and to be grateful for having survived.
Once each year, however, for the last four years, members of Café Europa have been treated to a very special day during which, as Shoah survivor Cipora Nutovich said, “They treat us like kings and queens.” The day features a three-hour cruise around Marina del Rey, an entertainment package that includes live music and a sumptuous lunch.
This year’s cruise took place Sept. 28, and before the Café Europa members arrived, the ship’s employees were prepped. Consisting mostly of Guatemalans, the crew was told that these guests had suffered more than anyone could imagine.
“We explain to the crew what the Holocaust was,” Eveline (Evi) Ginzburg said, “and who these people are, and the staff really take it to heart and make enormous efforts to show them respect and make sure they have a good time.”
Ginzburg shows them great respect as well. She greets each Holocaust survivor as he or she comes aboard, telling each of the more than 200 who went on this year’s cruise how much of a privilege and an honor it is for her, Ginzburg, to host this event.
Adela Manheimer, nearly 90, originally from Poland, said that once all the elderly guests are seated, Ginzburg goes to each table. “There’s this beautiful boat, elegant, and Evi is so humble and down-to-earth. It’s very special for us to have such a day.”
“We always do it during Sukkot,” Ginzburg said. “The first year was such a success, and everyone was so excited about it that it has become an annual event.”
FantaSea Cruises — founded 30 years ago by Ginzburg’s husband, Uri, a real estate developer — is a floating venue for celebrations and corporate events. They have three boats, and the business is now run by the Ginzburgs’ son Daniel and his wife, Stephanie.
For the members of Café Europa who go on the cruise, the day starts when buses pick them up and take them to Marina del Rey, where they board the ship.
Mina Colton, originally from Lodz, Poland, said she has been on all four cruises. “You come into an elegant lobby,” Colton said, “and there’s excellent food. When they start playing music, I like to dance. I really know how to enjoy it. But the thing that makes me cry is Evi Ginzburg. She seems so happy when we have a good time. The way they treat us, like it’s an honor for them. You see how much they want to please us.”
For Harris Frischer, as for other survivors, there’s an unspoken contrast between how they were treated during the Holocaust and how they’re treated during their day on the FantaSea cruise. “The cruise is excellent,” Frischer said. “Especially the wonderful food. We enjoy it so much, we don’t want it to end.” Frischer went on to say that when he was liberated from a concentration camp at the age of 17, he weighed 75 pounds.
“Each year, I notice that those in Café Europa, those who come on the FantaSea trip, are getting a little more frail,” Eveline Ginzburg said. “This year, there were more and more who needed walkers or special assistance, or who came with people who help them. I’m aware that they’re getting older. ... They’re so appreciative of everything.”
Ginzburg recalled one woman she spoke with during the recent Café Europa cruise. “She told me that when she was 11, she was in hiding. She said she spent nearly a month by herself, on her own. I tried to think how my 11-year-old granddaughter would have survived that kind of situation. I’m not sure that an 11-year-old girl in Los Angeles, raised in today’s society, would have survived.
“These men and women are a wonderful, feisty, interesting group of people. They’ve all had horrendous lives and survived, and have come here and made lives for themselves. I feel that they deserve every honor that’s available to them.”
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