Luba Yankelevna was 12 years old in 1941 when her father was conscripted and sent to the front during what the Soviets called the Great Patriotic War—what we call World War II. Panic swept through her shtetl in the Ukrainian region of Polesia as news spread that the Nazis were marching east. Amid the chaos, the town’s elderly Jewish fortuneteller Leybl der Trefer hobbled up to Yankelevna’s mother with a message: “Take your daughter and leave.”
The pair boarded a horse-drawn cart and then transferred to cattle cars heading east, deep into the Soviet Union. When German aircraft bombed the railways and shot at the passengers with machine guns, Yankelevna and her mother ran out of the car, huddled in the grass, and survived. For three years they worked as slaves in a cotton field in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with other Jewish evacuees. When their homeland was liberated, Yankelevna and her mother returned to find a landscape dotted with mass graves. Everyone they had known lay buried there.
Now 84, Yankelevna still tills the earth to survive. Every other day in the spring and summer she boards a bus outside her crumbling apartment block in Boryspil, Ukraine, and travels two hours to a small plot of land where she digs for onions and potatoes to sustain her during the cold months. She has heart disease and blood pressure so high she sometimes faints while she’s working. For years, winter has meant a dangerous choice between the cost of medicine and heat.
But life has been easier ever since the envelopes filled with “gelt” began arriving from the Survivor Mitzvah Project, an organization that offers financial assistance to Holocaust survivors. With the $2,200 she received last year, Yankelevna bought pills for her blood pressure and heart, paid her heating bill, and lined her pantry with food to last her through spring.
“That’s how I lived, always worrying,” Yankelevna wrote in a letter to the organization, describing her past. “That’s how it has gone in my childhood, my teenage years, and then when I am old … I am very, very much thankful to you for your help.”
Yankelevna’s letter is one of thousands Zane Buzby keeps at the Los Angeles headquarters of the Survivor Mitzvah Project, where she oversees a growing effort to provide emergency aid to ailing survivors in Eastern Europe. The homegrown nonprofit is the only one of its kind to give continuous financial support directly to some 2,000 elderly survivors living out their last days poor, sick, and alone.
Buzby, who co-founded the Survivor Mitzvah Project with L.A. philanthropist Chic Wolk and serves as its executive director, travels to Eastern Europe at least once a year to visit the survivors she knows and locate others. In rural stretches of Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova she tracks down their houses, knocks on their doors, and presses crisp dollar bills, eyeglasses, and tubes of arthritis cream into their hands. Between visits, she mails envelopes stuffed with cash—and letters, always letters.
The Holocaust ended nearly 70 years ago, yet this population is still suffering, she said. She wondered: What will become of them?
“We have all these chances to memorialize and honor everyone who perished, but people forget the ones who, by some miracle, survived,” Buzby told me in a recent interview in advance of Yom Hashoah, which falls on Monday. “These are the husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews of the people who perished, and they have no one to take care of them. There are thousands of people alive, right now, who survived the Holocaust, and they need help.”
Buzby isn’t one to mince words. A director, producer, and former actress who has directed more than 200 episodes of television shows including Blossom, The Golden Girls, and Married … with Children, Buzby jokes that she has had “one foot in the world of comedy, the other foot in the Holocaust” for the past decade. She isn’t fazed by mountains of paperwork, 18-hour work days, or the daily heartbreak of shouldering others’ pain. “There’s nothing that can’t be accomplished if you just put one foot in front of the other and you have an iron will,” she said.
It all started in 2001 when Buzby’s mother suggested she make a pilgrimage to tour the Lithuanian villages where her grandmothers were born. “I thought I was just going to go, take a few pictures for my sister and my mom, report back to the family, and go on with my life,” Buzby recalled. “I had no idea that my life would take a hairpin turn in another direction.”
On one of her first days there, she met scholar Dovid Katz, founder of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University. They struck up a friendship. Before she left for Belarus, Katz approached her with a request: “Here’s a list of eight survivors who haven’t had a visitor in God knows how long. They’re old and they’re alone. Would you mind visiting them?” Buzby agreed, but was hesitant to show up on the doorsteps of people for whom strangers on the doorstep wasn’t, historically, a good omen. How would she identify herself? “Just say, shalom aleichem,” Katz told her.
She hired a translator, drove through a tangle of country roads, and started knocking on the doors of dilapidated wooden huts. In the backyards she found senior citizens on their hands and knees in the September chill, digging up potatoes before the ground froze. They regarded her anxiously until she remembered the greeting she was instructed to give. “Then they came running over with smiles, kisses, hugs,” Buzby said. “It was a profound connection in an instant.”
When she returned home, she couldn’t stop fretting about their welfare. She decided to send them each a few dollars to tide them through the winter. Unable to speak their language, she wrapped the bills in a sheet of paper on which she drew a Star of David and a heart.
Twelve years later, Buzby oversees a network of support for a vast constellation of elderly Jews. Most were the sole survivors of their family, or of their entire shtetl—escapees of the Einsatzgruppen, German paramilitary squads dispatched to massacre the Jewish population in occupied Soviet lands. Some ran from the trenches where they were lined up to be shot. Others, like Yankelevna, joined USSR-sponsored evacuations deep into Asia and weathered the war through hard labor. A few hid in the forest and fought as partisans against the Nazis. Yet a common theme runs through their narratives: By luck of having avoided deportation to concentration camps or ghettos, most are ineligible for Holocaust compensation by the German government and don’t receive continuous financial aid from major Jewish organizations.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has done “splendid work for hundreds of thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe,” said Katz by email from Vilnius. With funding from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the JDC provides more than 80,000 victims of Nazi atrocities with kosher food, medication, home care, and Jewish cultural activities through its Hesed Welfare Centers. But there are many more people, Buzby added, “who have fallen through the cracks.” And that’s the gap that Buzby’s organization strives to fill: “If I find out someone had a stroke or needs an eye operation,” she said, “I can get them money the next day to take care of it.”
These survivors, who are mostly in their 80s and 90s, have never had it easy. The oldest among them lived through the Russian Revolution and World War I, suffered brutal pogroms, lost their families and homes in the Holocaust, endured the hardships of communist rule, and then watched their life savings and social services evaporate after Perestroika. They now subsist on meager pensions that pale against the rising cost of medicine and heating fuel, Katz said.
“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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