Like many celebrations with Holocaust survivors, there was a deeper awareness of the season’s blessings at the Cafe Europa Hanukka party in Elizabeth on Dec. 17.
There was a hum of conversation as people introduced themselves, but it hushed as Gladys Helfgott stood up to speak. It was her first time attending one of the monthly gatherings of the group, a social and support program for Shoa survivors. Those present — young and old — listened with rapt attention.
Helfgott, who was born in Poland and lives now in Union, told them how — as a child in a concentration camp — she called out to her mother as she was moving toward the door of a gas chamber. She turned around at the sound of her daughter’s voice, and that moment saved her life.
“She died in this country, peacefully, at the age of 82,” Helfgott said. There was a murmur of pleasure at that.
For Hannah Solomon, this is just the kind of encounter she wanted for the fifth-grade boys she had brought with her to the event, hosted by Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey.
Solomon, the music teacher from the Jewish Educational Center’s Yeshiva of Elizabeth, takes her choirs to perform at places like the YM-YWHA of Union County and at Trinitas Hospital. By singing at Cafe Europa, she said, they also get a chance to speak with survivors.
“How much longer will they be able to have an opportunity like this?” she asked.
Most of those attending survivor events are from the younger cohort now, people who were children during the war, but not all. Symcha Rusinek, who grew up in Poland and now lives in Maplewood, was celebrating his 90th birthday. He deliberately didn’t let that cat out the bag until most people had left and he was chatting with a few remaining friends. But, he added, there was a big family celebration coming up over the weekend.
Social worker JoAnn Cohen runs the Cafe Europa group with Naomi Browar, and is assisted by social work intern Rivka Weiner. She said around 20 seniors come to the regular monthly lunches. Some simply want to socialize and avoid talking about their past. Others welcome the chance to review their memories with people who understand what they went through.
Cohen, Weiner, and Solomon, assisted by other JFS colleagues, dished out latkes and doughnuts to the seniors and the children. The youngsters circulated, handing out food and introducing themselves to the seniors. A number of them stopped to hear more from Helfgott.
Weiner invited the older people to share their memories of childhood Hanukkas. Anitta Fox spoke about her life in Austria, and get-togethers with her extended family — a charmed circle she still misses all these decades later.
Moshe Rosenthal, who was there with his wife, Shirley, told the JEC children about making clay dreidels when he was a kid in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Fred Lefkovic, at the party with his brother Dave and his brother-in-law Boris Imre, recalled a wooden truck that he had back in Belgium.
As in previous years, the largest cluster of boys formed around Dave Lefkovic. He was showing them how to make paper airplanes, and the boys were fascinated. “He’s been making these since we were kids,” Fred Lefkovic said.
The children gave the seniors a Hanukka gift of their own. They sang a selection of songs, finishing with a special version of “Those Were the Days,” adapted for Hanukka. But the nostalgia in the original lyrics rang through too, recalling joys gone by.