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Program for Holocaust Survivors Gives Space for Their Stories

JFCS has a long history of helping Holocaust survivors in our region, from resettling them after the war to helping them age well in their homes and in our community. Through a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (or Claims Conference), we’ve been able to help Holocaust survivors age in their homes, receive the care they need, and get support while they age. 

The History

In 1987, the Claims Conference offered funding to help aging Holocaust survivors receive services to allow them to continue to live and age in place in their communities. JFCS received one of these grants in 1997, and the program started a few months later in 1998. Sandy Budd, JFCS Psychotherapist and Geriatric Social Worker, has been working with the Claims Conference program since its beginning. “We developed the program by forming a committee of community members, survivors, and staff and decided to focus on basic services that would help these individuals live more independently—cleaning and caregiving services, kosher meal delivery, counseling, care management.” Through the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, committee members, word-of-mouth, and an article in the Jewish Chronicle, word spread about the program and survivors began to enroll.

“Whenever a referral would come in, I would go and meet with the survivor and assess their needs,” Sandy explained. “At the start of the program, we wanted to be super sensitive—minimal paperwork and a minimally invasive process to set up services.” In the first year of the program, 18 clients were enrolled. Overall, the program has had 149 clients through the last 23 years, with its peak in 2006 with 57 participants. Now, because of individuals moving away and an aging population, the program has just 12 members. 

Helping Survivors Age in Place

The Claims Conference program helps with a variety of aspects of life and services, all with the goal of helping Holocaust survivors age in place. These services include reimbursing some expenses for medical equipment, caregiving and cleaning services, setting up meal delivery services, counseling and case management to help individuals continue to live at home.

Sandy’s role as a counselor and as a third party outside of the family became vitally important for many of the Holocaust survivors who often didn’t feel they could talk about their experiences with anyone else. “Even though I’m Jewish and grew up learning about the Holocaust, I didn’t understand that a lot of survivors really didn’t share much with their kids,” explained Sandy. “That was to protect them and not retraumatize themselves. I was initially surprised when they would share things with me and I would find out that they hadn’t shared them with their kids.”

Giving a Space for Their Stories

For Sandy, this program was more than just providing services but also hearing people’s stories and getting to know the individuals. “I really got to know people, and I felt like I was getting more from them than they were getting from me,” Sandy expressed. She was especially touched by clients who gave to charity and gave back to the community. “The people who, despite what happened to them, could really embrace others and people who were different than them—those are the ones that really struck me,” she said.

One story that sticks with her is from her early years working with the Claims Conference program. Sandy received a call from the adult children of survivors about getting help for their parents. The husband was legally blind and mostly deaf; his wife was his caretaker since their kids lived out of town but had recently been diagnosed with dementia. Their son called Sandy hoping for her to help move his parents to where he lived so that they could give them better care. 

When talking with the couple about this decision, the husband, who often told her stories that led to a specific point, started to tell Sandy a new story about his time during the military draft in Poland. He didn’t want to go and had asked a Rebbe for advice, who told him, “Don’t do anything, just go.” So he did go to the draft, and his name got passed over. He got to go home.

“Then he got to the point of his story,” Sandy said. “He told me, ‘Sandy, I want you to be my Rebbe Tell me what to do. Should I move to where my kids want me to go? What should I do?’”

Sandy explained, “The Rebbe—that’s the wise person you go to. I was so touched to be able to help him make these decisions at this time in his life. We sat and talked about the pros and cons of everything, and eventually he did move to where his kids lived.”

A Community-Wide Impact

Working with these individuals has had a profound impact on Sandy. “Each person had a unique story and was so interesting,” Sandy expressed. “People who survive that and however they are now, that’s one heck of a journey to go through. I think all the time, what would they have done with their lives if they had had the opportunity to go to high school or college? So many of them were not even able to finish high school, but they came here and were able to rebuild themselves and become successful.”

The program has made an impact on the community of survivors through the years, helping families and individuals through life transitions. “Providing this service through the Claims Conference has allowed survivors to age in dignity longer than they would have without the service,” Sandy said. The process of aging is already difficult, but survivors face the added challenges of the trauma of going through the Holocaust. Sandy’s counseling has provided much-needed support for the survivors through the years. “They won’t just talk to anyone about their experiences. This is an opportunity for them to have the ability to talk about things that happened to them that they were holding onto,” she explained. “Knowing there is someone, a caring place, has been very helpful.”


About the photo: Judah Samet is a local Holocaust survivor. Photo by Megan Walker.