Healing our survivors

A special program at Sheba Medical Center is dedicated to meeting the unique emotional and physical needs of Holocaust survivors for each moment they are at the facility.

January 24, 2018 09:18
Healing our survivors

Avraham Manoach is seen with his wife Chaya and his granddaughter in Jaffa in November.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Avraham Manoach may look fragile and frail lying prone in a hospital bed at Sheba Medical Center. But Manoach is a fighter.

The octogenarian’s battle with melanoma for more than 40 years is just one of the ongoing struggles he’s fought in his life. The first, and perhaps the one with the most lingering aftereffects, was his time spent in a ghetto outside Sofia, Bulgaria, at the age of nine during the Holocaust.

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Luckily, Manoach didn’t suffer the horrors of a concentration camp, but he knew at a young age what it was like to have everything taken away from him. It was a childhood in which the future was uncertain and food was scarce. And at a time when a young boy’s body is supposed to grow and thrive, Manoach shriveled up within himself.

But he was undeterred.

He made aliya after the war, and like thousands of other immigrant Holocaust survivors, he helped to build a country from scratch.

Manoach joined the Kibbutz Artzi movement and eventually went on to become a building engineer responsible for creating many necessary facilities for the burgeoning kibbutzim. These kibbutzim were part of the Hashomer Hatza’ir (young guard), the first Zionist youth movement dedicated to fostering a generation of idealistic pioneers committed to building the Jewish state. His contributions to laying the groundwork for the country’s literal foundations has not gone unnoticed. So much so that even in his frail state, colleagues continue to consult him about new projects.

In the pantheon of Holocaust survivor stories, though, Manoach is one of the lucky ones. The 83-year-old has two children, six grandchildren and a devoted wife by his side. Many others are not so fortunate and must grapple with hardship in solitude.

Sheba Medical Center understood that a void needed to be filled, as Holocaust survivors have specific emotional, physical and psychological needs that go beyond natural old age. So when Hilda Rejwan approached the hospital with her vision, the partnership seemed like a natural fit.

As proof that what goes around sometimes does come around, some of the first donations to Sheba when it was established in 1948 came from Holocaust survivors. This program, then, is a way for the hospital to give back.

SINCE IT began, the program has treated 900 survivors, providing them with a dedicated caregiver who visits every day. Caregivers go through comprehensive training to learn how the physical and emotional trauma sustained during the Holocaust can cause lifelong detrimental effects. Sheba prides itself on administering holistic care – care that is specifically tailored to each patient’s needs. This includes helping with bathing and eating, accompanying the patient to appointments and providing companionship.

Patients are grateful – and often surprised – by this personalized approach to healthcare.

“I really feel like I’m getting special treatment that goes beyond what other patients come to expect,” said Manoach, who has spent two months on and off at Sheba. “To wake up in the morning and see a familiar face warms my heart.”

“There was no food,” his wife, Chaya, said of her husband’s childhood. “I’m not a doctor. But there is no doubt in my mind that what he went through as a child stunted his growth and adversely impacted his health. We have a generation who grew up under unnatural, inhumane conditions.”

Hilda Rejwan, a retired occupational healthcare professional responsible for bringing the program to Sheba, said, “Treating people with illness runs in my blood. This has been my career for my whole life.” Rejwan has 30 years of healthcare experience and a bachelor’s degree in Jewish history. She was struck by the lack of formal assistance Holocaust survivors receive from the government and wanted to be part of a solution to help rectify that.

“All the elderly struggle, but Holocaust survivors often suffer more,” Rejwan explained.

“They are usually lonely, and even if they have children, they are not always available. They also have major social-adjustment problems, more than the rest of the elderly population,” she said.

Rejwan decided that volunteer efforts were not sufficient and that a hospital must offer paid professionals to administer customized treatment.

Her requirements for such a program were quite specific: “It has to be a team of trained professionals who are paid and understand their struggles. They need to work only with Holocaust survivors. They must have a certain tag officially designating that they are part of this program and they can’t be plucked by other wards.”

Rejwan approached Sheba with her idea, and her initiative was welcomed with open arms.

Today, the program is offered on three hospital wards: orthopedic, general surgery and internal medicine. The hospital hopes with more donations, the program will be offered in other departments as well.

“THERE IS no other project like this in Israel,” Rejwan said proudly. “Sheba has helped me realize my dream. Every day I come here is a happy day for me.”

While Rejwan comes once every two weeks to inspect, making sure that conditions and treatment are up to her standards, Yochy Rozin, the program’s coordinating nurse, oversees the day-to-day activities.

Rozin, whose father is a Holocaust survivor, said, “I always say that the first time people come to this place, they are surprised to get this kind of treatment. The [caregivers] are always there to help, even if the [patients] have their own personal care.”

Tzvia Caspi, a patient in the orthopedic ward, said, “When I was younger, I used to give many lectures about my story.” Caspi, from Holland, was hidden by Christians during the Holocaust. She had to remain indoors for much of the war for fear of being discovered by the Nazis. Like Manoach, she too was part of the Kibbutz Youth Movement. “We were ambitious young workers who wanted to build a country. We always worked,” she said of her time as a young adult in Kibbutz Erez near the Gaza border.

As we commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Rozin implored, “I think people should know that these people should not be neglected. Their stories must be heard, their needs must be met.

“Their stories are not just about the Holocaust. You hear how they came to this country, about their families. Most people in the family don’t want to hear these stories anymore, but it’s important they be heard,” she added.

Rejwan said, “They should not only be remembered on remembrance days or on the few times a year that survivor’s names are read out in the Knesset. It is our very basic moral duty to be by their side, to respect and support them. This is the very minimum we can do for these people who lived through hell and then came to Israel and put their all into building the homeland for the Jews.”

Prof. Yitshak Kreiss, director general of Sheba Medical Center, stated: “Sheba Medical Center, the nation’s hospital, carries both a public and moral commitment to the Holocaust survivors who live in our midst. It is our duty as a nation to ensure they live in dignity and want for nothing, all the more so when it comes to the most important thing we have, our health.”

This article was written in cooperation with the Sheba Medical Center.

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