Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County will honor county Holocaust survivors at its 2015 Gala on Saturday, Feb. 28.
“This is really the time to do it,” Barbara Majeski, event chair and JFCS board member, told NJJN. “There are over 20 living Holocaust survivors in our community. We are showcasing who they are as human beings, what they accomplished during their lifetime, and what we will continue to accomplish as a Jewish community.”
Two of Majeski’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors.
“My father was born on a train heading west, fleeing the Soviet Union,” said Majeski, who became an activist herself after hearing Ilse Loeb — a survivor from Monroe Township — speak at a Shoa commemoration.
“Growing up with a brother with special needs, I know the value and importance of taking care of others who can’t take care of themselves,” she said. “JFCS being dedicated to taking care of the most vulnerable members of the community really speaks to me.”
Majeski helped JFCS create a video highlighting local survivors for the gala, shot by Burkewood Creative. During the filming, survivor Martha Friedman shared a letter that her interned mother managed to get to her family’s housekeeper. Sometime after the war, said Majeski, Martha received the letter from the housekeeper.
Martha read it aloud during the filming, in Hungarian and English. It said: “Please spare no expense for my children. I will pay you back. Tell them I love them, and spend whatever you need to and I will reimburse you.” Martha never saw her mother again.
Steven Besserman of Hamilton told NJJN how the Nazis took his grandfather to a labor camp in Poland. Besserman’s father, Joseph, convinced the Nazis to take him instead. “Things were ‘lenient’ enough at the time, and he pleaded with the soldiers,” Steven said. “He walked in, his father walked out, and they exchanged a tearful hug.”
Steven said that that was the last time they saw each other.
Joseph Besserman, from Poland, met his wife Aranka, a Hungarian, at a waldlager, a subcamp in the Dachau concentration camp system, where prisoners were making concrete coverings to protect aircraft.
Steven says his parents “met through a barbed-wire fence, without a common language, and fell in love.”
Janet Schall Cohen of Lawrenceville told NJJN about the experience of her mother, Cyla Schall, from Sarny, Poland, now part of Ukraine.
After the Germans took over, Cyla “remembers people running and living in the woods and not having a home,” Cohen said. “She was homeless for a long time. They kept moving forward and were always ahead of ‘the frontier,’ where the fighting was.” Eventually HIAS brought Cyla and her husband, whom she met in Kazakhstan, to Trenton.
Janice Baer, a social worker for JFCS, is head of its Holocaust services, which are supported by a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Services include homecare aides, house cleaning, transportation to doctors, grocery shopping, kosher meals-on-wheels, and case management.
For survivors the home care maximum allotment of 25 hours per week is higher than for a typical aid recipient, and they are allowed to have more money in savings. JFCS also provides emergency assistance for unexpected medical bills, subject to the approval of a JFCS Holocaust Survivors Advisory Committee.
JFCS also runs Cafe Europa, a monthly social program that serves 19 active survivors. “They like an opportunity to get out, get together, dress up, wear makeup, especially in the winters, when it is so isolating and hard to get out,” Baer said.
The gala will also feature Geoffrey Schwartz, an offensive lineman for the New York Giants, who is “very clear and outspoken about [his] Judaism,” said JFCS executive director Linda Meisel.
The gala also has a corporate honoree, Mrs. G’s, a third-generation Jewish business now run by Debbie Schaeffer, granddaughter of the founder. “When some of the survivors came to the U.S. after the war,” said Meisel, “as a local Jewish business, Mrs. G’s was involved in helping people get situated.”
Another aspect of the commemoration is a tribute book for Holocaust survivors. “We hope people will use this as an opportunity to acknowledge or remember and to celebrate family members,” Meisel said. “You can tell your person’s story; and this is something that will become part of communal history.”