When the first Holocaust survivors arrived in the United States at the end of World War II and tried to speak of their experiences, they often encountered a complete disconnect, such as when an American listener would respond, “Oh, that must have been bad, but we had rationing here during the war.”
In Israel, a young generation of sabras was suspicious of anyone who had survived, thinking they must have collaborated with the Nazis or used some other underhanded methods to have escaped death.
John Gordon, a survivor, cites such insensitivities and indignities to explain why some 150 survivors sitting nearby still feel most secure and relaxed when they are among themselves, which explains the success — and necessity of Café Europa.
Café Europa is a social concept, a club of sorts, rather than a physical place. Its name harkens back to the “gemütlichkeit” (comfort or coziness) of continental cafes in old Vienna and Budapest, but its mission is to serve as a “safe space” for people who share backgrounds and sufferings.
Gordon, who was a Hungarian hidden child, is a retired aerospace engineer and, at 75, one of the youngsters in the room. Besides serving as president of Child Survivors of the Holocaust, for the past 16 years he has been a volunteer coordinator at Café Europa, a long-running project of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS).
Los Angeles pioneered the Café Europa concept, which has now spread to other major American cities, and to Israel, through the Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership program.
Members of Café Europa meet weekly at two local venues — about 75 to 100 at the Westside Jewish Community Center and some 40 to 60 at the Valley Store Front Senior Center in North Hollywood. In addition, Russian-speaking survivors gather at Café Shalom in Santa Monica.
On a recent Thursday, the two Café Europa groups came together at Temple Beth Am to meet with Gregory Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, formally the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
The Claims Conference negotiates and administers Holocaust restitution funds from Germany and Austria, and channels $1 million a year to JFS for a range of support projects benefiting about a thousand survivors, according to Susan Alexman, director of JFS senior services.
But first, attendees noshed on hummus, pita and fruits, followed by entertainment by two singers and some lively dancing by the predominantly female crowd to such old-time favorites as “Those Were the Days,” “Hallelujah” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.”
Schneider traveled from his New York headquarters to explain the recently negotiated German government grant of $750 million to provide home care for increasingly frail survivors, but mainly to get feedback from his audience on their specific concerns and problems.
Rather than open the floor to questioners, which has proven rather chaotic in the past, Schneider went from table to table passing out cards on which survivors could write their personal questions, to be answered by his New York staff later.
This method worked only partially, as Schneider was quickly surrounded by questioners, some airing their points with considerable emotion.
One was 77-year-old Gina Silvers, who objected vigorously that valuables taken from Hungarian Jews by the Nazis, in the so-called Gold Train case, and recovered by U.S. troops, had been used by the Claims Conference to aid needy survivors, rather than be returned to the original owners.
On the other hand, Regina Lewin, 83, a Polish survivor, said she had gotten her pension through the Claims Conference, adding, “I’m not complaining.”
Even so small a sampling points to the complexity of handling the passionately held opinions or grievances of numerous survivors. Many of them emerged from the camps with a deep sense of mistrust of the outside world and of any authorities, Gordon said, and there are also rivalries within their ranks.
Hungarian Jews tend to feel Polish Jews got a better compensation deal, and there is a “hierarchy of suffering” among the survivors, Gordon noted, with those who were sent to Auschwitz ranking higher than those sent to other camps.
Since its founding in 1951, the Claims Conference frequently has been besieged by criticism from survivor groups and others, with charges of excessive pay for executive administrators, lack of transparency, poor distribution of funds and, last year, embezzlement by insiders.
There is a sense that the organization has corrected many of its shortcomings since Schneider took over two years ago, and he has made a point of visiting as many survivors as possible and listening to their concerns.
Along that line, Schneider said that among the nearly 40 cards he collected from survivors, most dealt with specific technical questions. He added that the large majority expressed appreciation for the work of the Claims Conference and that only a very few, “but disproportionately loud,” took jabs at the organization.
Schneider told The Jewish Journal that his main concern now, “which keeps me up at night,” is that the remnant of the survivors will not receive necessary medical and personal care as they grow increasingly feeble.