Finding Help to Stay at Home for Holocaust Survivors

Shirley Herzberg walks gingerly down the hallway of her row home in Northeast Philadelphia, passing a painting of Jeru­salem made by a relative who, like her, survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Both her parents and two of her siblings were killed there, but Herzberg doesn’t mind talking about the tragic events of her past.  

“I’m so used to it already,” she said.

At 90 years old, her biggest source of pain now comes from getting older and being forced to rely on others, she said. These things “hurt more” than reliving the Holocaust.

Her husband, Joseph, died about seven years ago after suffering from Alzheimer’s. She recounted how he damaged a wall in their home from throwing a chair and one time suddenly bolted as they were walking through a grocery store. As she chased after him, Herzberg fell and broke both her arms.

She’s been able to remain in her own house, she said, thanks to the support of two sons who live in the area and an aide who comes over five days a week, mostly to help with cooking.

“I don’t want to go to a nursing home because I lived here for so long,” Herzberg  said, noting that her family moved in when one of their sons was only 2 years old.

The home care help is provided through funding from the Holocaust Survivors Support Program run by Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Great­er Philadelphia.

About 160 survivors in the region annually receive in-home assistance from the JFCS program, ranging from housekeeping to help with bathing and getting dressed, depending on their needs. The aim is to allow the increasingly small number of Holocaust survivors to live independently and ensure that, 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the difficult later parts of life bear little resemblance to the horrific events of their past.

“We don’t want people to relive the trauma of being in a structured living environment,” said Sara Popkin, director of senior services for JFCS. “People want to age at home and it’s especially critical when you think about Holocaust survivors who have experienced such high levels of trauma.”

The JFCS program received about $1.1 million to support clients in 2014 and expects that amount to increase to $2.3 million this year. Aside from $175,000 in matching funds from local donors, the bulk of those funds comes from the German government through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which was established in 1951 to negotiate with the West German government on reparations for the victims of Nazi persecution.

The agreements with Germany have been amended over the years, in part because of the changing needs of aging survivors. After negotiations last year  between the Claims Conference and the German government, funding was increased by 20 percent to $360 million for 2015 and will be distributed to agencies around the world to support Holocaust survivors.

“Abandoned by the world in their youths, Holocaust victims deserve all the aid and comfort that it is possible to give them in the twilight of their lives,” Julius Berman, the Claims Conference president said when the additional funds from Germany were announced in December.

Paula Goldstein, president and CEO of JFCS, said her organization, which is the sole distributor of Claims Conference funding in the Philadelphia area, was very grateful for the increase of funding this year. She said that while the Claims Conference “didn’t give us every dime to cover every survivor,” it came close. With the increased funds effective Jan. 1, she said, JFCS is now “in the process of re-evaluating all of our survivors’ needs because we haven’t been able to meet them to the fullest” in the past.

In addition to home care, the program funds emergency services and social programs for survivors.

The number of JFCS clients has remained steady despite the death rate of Holocaust survivors due to old age. That’s in part because the German government changed its rules for compensation in recent years so that more people are eligible to receive these social services. The funding initially served a limited, “inadequate,” number of Nazi victims but now compensates any Jew who was persecuted in countries occupied by the Nazis or Axis powers from 1933 to 1945, according to the Claims Conference.

Beneficiaries must meet certain financial criteria — no more than $25,000 in annual net income for individuals and the value of their assets may not exceed $500,000, according to the Claims Conference. But there are also a number of exemptions and special considerations. For example, social security payments are not considered income, and the value of the home in which they reside is not included as part of the asset calculation.

For Herzberg, the JFCS services have made life a little more manageable.

Born in 1924 in Malý Berezný, Czechos­­lovakia, Herzberg was the youngest of eight children in a religious family. Her father was a shochet — a kosher ritual slaughterer — and one of her brothers was a rabbi. When the Nazis invaded in 1939, they forced the family into the Uzhgorod ghetto and, in 1944, to Auschwitz.

Herzberg turned 20 during the six-month period she spent at Auschwitz. Toward the end of the war, in 1945, the Nazis moved Herzberg, her sister Frieda and other prisoners on forced marches.

After escaping, she ended up posing as a Hungarian gentile, working as a maid with a family in Most, Czechoslovakia, until the Allied troops arrived. Unsure of who was alive, she searched for family and found a sister. In 1948, a brother who had escaped to the United States at the start of the war sent them papers to come overseas, and they landed in Philadelphia.

Relatives introduced Herzberg to her future husband, Joseph, a Polish Jew. Herzberg said her parents wanted her to marry a “yeshiva bocher,” which meant that Joseph, who had not been as religious after the war, would need to become shomer Shabbas. “He became a kosher butcher because of me,” Herz­berg said, smiling at the recollection.

Joseph operated Weinberger’s Butcher Shop in Logan for more than 20 years, and they spent most of their lives in their Northeast home, which is decorated not only with the Jerusalem painting but several other pieces of art created by family members who survived the Holocaust.

Herzberg said she gets along well with her JFCS home-care provider, a Christian Pakistani woman who has visited Jeru­salem. She keeps herself busy with knitting projects, despite poor eyesight and unsteady hands.

Years ago, she said, she used to do alterations from home while her husband was at the butcher shop and she still wears clothing she made. She is currently working through a spool of brown yarn to create a vest for her granddaughter, Rebecca.

“She calls me every day,” Herzberg said of her granddaughter.

Not far from Herzberg, 93-year-old Elizabeth Bleiman also lives by herself with support from the JFCS program.

She was born in Ujfeherto, Hungary, in 1921. Her father had a business selling building materials, and their family was very charitable “without making their name known,” said Bleiman.

When the Nazis came to their town in 1944, they forced the family into a ghetto and then to Auschwitz. Upon arriving at the concentration camp, she held onto her mother’s arm and said in German to a guard who was trying to separate them, “Ich möchte gehen” — “I would like to go.” But the officer pushed them apart and Bleiman never saw either of her parents again.

In 1945, the Allied forces liberated Bleiman, who had been in forced marches near Danzig, Poland. Both her brother and sister, who were not at Auschwitz, also survived.

She met her husband, Motel, at a displaced persons camp. In 1949, relatives helped them come to Lakewood, N.J., and then to Philadelphia. Motel worked as a Hebrew teacher at the Beth Jacob School, which closed in the 1980s, and then at various synagogues. He died in 1999.

Neither of the Auschwitz survivors regularly tells her story in public. Herz­berg has given a couple of talks and the Shoah Foundation interviewed her for its archives. Bleiman gave one talk to a synagogue about 20 years ago.

“It was too much for me,” she recalled. “Here it is I’m smiling and talking, I can’t look at people. Then I just close my eyes and everything was in front of me.” 

Bleiman still drives and travels a few times a week to classes and social events at the Klein JCC, some of which are organized by JFCS. An assistant from the Holocaust support program also comes once every two weeks to help her clean.

“I am very grateful” to the organization “because without them, it would be very different," said Bleiman.

If the funding came directly from the Jewish community, she said she would have qualms about accepting the support. But since it comes from the German government, she feels differently. She said she is doing OK financially, but “from the Claims Conference, I need everything. I get it because of my loss, all my loss. I get this because of what I suffered from the Germans.”