Toma Lewin was just 9 when her family was forced into the Wlodawa ghetto in eastern Poland. After they fled to the forest to join the partisans, she picked up arms alongside the fighters. “They taught me how to shoot, how to hide, and how to help,” said Lewin, now 88 and a resident of Monroe. “All the kids had to shoot.”
Lewin, her parents, and three surviving brothers went to a displaced persons’ camp in Austria after the war. She came to the United States in 1950 after marrying her husband at age 18 in the camp. The couple, who had four sons, moved to Monroe in 2002.
Now a widow, this grandmother of six and great-grandmother of eight suffers from spinal stenosis and has difficulty walking. She gets by with the assistance of a homecare aide from Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County (JFS), who helps her with dressing, shopping, and household chores. “She really helps me with little things around the house because it’s not easy,” said Lewin.
Lewin is one of 187 survivors who are JFS clients — but the agency’s resources are sorely strained. To help boost the assistance it provides, the agency will run an on-line and phone fund-raiser Sunday, Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was established to commemorate the date of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945.
Middlesex County has the largest population of Holocaust survivors in New Jersey. Many have come to the county recently, because “as they age and need the help of their children, they move here to be close to them,” said JFS Holocaust survivors’ coordinator Fay Ross. There are other survivors in the area who remain unknown to JFS but approach the agency as they become less capable of taking care of themselves.
The agency receives funds from The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — in 2019, the amount will be $2,208,000, according to JFS CFO Mark Hauerstock — which is earmarked chiefly for such services as cleaning, laundry, companionship, and shopping. Money from the Claims Conference also helps fund home care (though restricted based on diagnostic needs), some medication, and Café Europa, a monthly program of entertainment and socialization.
JFS also received $85,000 from the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey in 2018, which will remain the same in 2019, Hauerstock said, and $56,000 from the State of New Jersey.
But with the needs growing, “the money we get hardly ever covers it all,” said Hauerstock, and JFS — which also provides survivors with kosher meals-on-wheels, prescription glasses, and transportation to doctors’ offices — must pick up the remainder. “We could probably use another half-million to a million dollars,” he said.
During the war most of the survivors received no medical or dental care and suffered the effects of harsh conditions and inadequate nutrition, resulting in the severe dental problems and other health issues they now suffer from.
Some survivors “don’t rate high enough” on the Claims Conference’s diagnostic scale to qualify to receive its funds, said Hauerstock, but still require home care.
“It’s like a triage,” he said. “When you have a major problem, you do your best to take care of everybody as best you can. Every day, Fay and I struggle with how to make that dollar go further for our survivors.”
At a Café Europa program held Dec. 18 at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, more than 100 people enjoyed a festive meal and live music at a belated Chanukah celebration.
Jerry Zegman, a native of Poland now living in Monroe, was interned in several concentration camps, including Dachau and Auschwitz. He remembers being inspected by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, known for his inhumane medical experiments on prisoners.
Zegman was imprisoned from age 18 to 23. He came to the United States at age 26 and worked in New York’s garment district.
Now 96 years old and alone since his wife died 10 years ago, JFS sends him meals-on-wheels and home care. “I supervise, but they do the housework and they’re very helpful,” he said, adding that JFS also helps him with shopping and trips to the doctor, “or anything else I need.”
Also at the café was Kiev native Inessa Kigel, 81, of East Brunswick, accompanied by her husband, Mark.
Her father was a soldier in the Russian army when she, then 4; her mother; and her grandparents fled to Siberia. “It was very dangerous,” she said. “We didn’t have food, and I almost died.”
In 1945, when Kigel’s family returned to Kiev, they found their house virtually destroyed. “We had nothing, zero,” she said. “We lived in the kitchen for maybe a year, with rats running all over us,” and she was stricken with dysentery.
She and her family next shared a five-room apartment with four other families, where she lived until the age of 18.
After she married and she and her husband applied to leave Ukraine, they lost their jobs, she as a doctor, he as an environmental engineer. They were watched by the government for years before being allowed to leave in 1985.
They settled in Queens, but she felt it was too late to learn what was necessary to qualify as a doctor in the United States. Kigel instead found work in a medical lab.
She said JFS provides a much-needed weekly cleaning service and helped when her husband needed cataract surgery.
Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County will run an on-line and telephone fund-raiser to bolster the support it provides survivors, on Sunday, Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. To donate, go to jfsmiddlesex.org/donate-form or call 732-777-1940 or 609-395-7979.