Boldface Aid for Shoah Victims
Blossom director Zane Buzby offers financial support to a group of tragically overlooked Holocaust survivors
“My pension allows me to buy only bread and milk … and I am already an old and ill person,” Raisa Kivovna, from Uman, Ukraine, wrote in a letter to Buzby. “My legs almost don’t work; I practically crawl around the apartment. … My entire health I gave to my country, which now has no need of me. I have been accustomed to hunger since childhood. I wanted, at least in old age, to live in a human way.”
Why not leave Eastern Europe and build a new life in the West? Some are too frail to move, others refuse to abandon the birthplace of their ancestors, and still others have long been afraid to leave in case a long-lost sister or uncle came back. “They just stayed, hoping for someone—anyone—to appear,” Buzby said.
“It’s tragic that there are survivors living below the poverty line, lonely souls in remote villages,” said Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance in L.A., which hosted the Survivor Mitzvah Project last year for a benefit at which actors, including Ed Asner and Elliott Gould, gave dramatic readings of the survivors’ letters. “It’s a great mitzvah, what Zane is doing.”
These days, Buzby spends much of her time poring over a massive spreadsheet on a computer in her basement. Scrolling through the database, she can point out who needs a walker, whose sister is in the hospital, who takes care of a handicapped adult son. She recently bought a new set of pots and pans for an elderly woman whose home was burglarized. When necessary, she sends money to pay for a Jewish gravestone.
The Survivor Mitzvah Project operates on small grants and donations from individuals and family foundations. Last year Buzby traveled to Europe three times and distributed about $425,000 to the survivors in her care. Corresponding with 2,000 people is a complex and time-consuming operation, but Buzby has help from three part-time employees and a volunteer Russian translator. She has received close to 10,000 letters over the years, which she dutifully scans, translates, and preserves in plastic sleeves tucked into rows of overstuffed binders in the organization’s modest downtown office. There, the walls bear framed pictures of the people Buzby has met. Their faces tell the story of their circumstances: wrinkled cheeks, glassy eyes, leathery skin. But the photographs tell of newfound friendship and community, too: a hand on a shoulder, a kiss on the forehead.
Warmth pours from the survivors’ handwritten pages: “Your letter for me is like a little ray of sunshine in the darkness.” “You have become like a close relative and closest friend to me.” “I can’t believe there are such nice people in the world.” “Now I am not alone.”
Buzby is now directing and producing, with partner Conan Berkeley, a documentary called Family of Strangers, highlighting the stories of those she has met on her many trips overseas. She hopes to finish it soon; she knows the clock is ticking for its subjects. “We weren’t around in 1941 to help these people, but we can do something now,” Buzby said. “We can save the life of a survivor. When are we going to have this opportunity again?”
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