Café Europa project gives homes and support to Holocaust survivors

It is our duty to continue to provide for the city’s Holocaust survivors, to give them a warm and welcoming “home.”

A Holocaust survivor holds a flower during a ceremony in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS/CORINNA KERN)
A Holocaust survivor holds a flower during a ceremony in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS/CORINNA KERN)
While world leaders march straight-faced across the lawn at the President’s Residence, while heads of state ceremoniously lay wreaths in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, while children in school choirs sing songs about childhoods cut short and dozens of photographers shoot camera flashes one after the other – while all this is happening, dozens of Holocaust survivors will gather in Jerusalem, take a sip from a hot cup of tea or coffee and tell each other about their week. I’m not sure they’ll remind one another that this week is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. They won’t be conducting ceremonies, and they won’t make a special point of commemorating 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
These survivors, those of Auschwitz and other concentration camps, are part of the Café Europa project, which has been running in Jerusalem for about a decade, thanks to the support of the Jerusalem Foundation, offering a warm home for hundreds of Holocaust survivors. Seventy-five years ago, Café Europa was the name of a local coffee house in Stockholm, Sweden, where Jews who had survived the camps would go each afternoon in search of lost relatives. Today, it is the name of a ‘coffee house’ that opens weekly in five different Jerusalem neighborhoods, each place adapting itself to meet the needs of the population that goes there: some are English speakers, some are Russian speakers and some are ultra-Orthodox in the heart of one of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. At this ‘coffee house’ they are neither treating the traumas of the past nor retelling the memories, of which some prefer not to be reminded. They go there to feel at home, meet friends and spend time together. Sometimes there are lectures, performances, concerts or information about their rights, but there is always a routine; a welcome routine that is vital for these survivors.
More than 20,000 Holocaust survivors live in Jerusalem. Café Europa creates a sort of safe place for them – not cut off from the reality of daily life, they hear the news at home on TV or on the radio and read about it in the newspapers – but protected and familiar. “Our job is to help them maintain their routine,” explained the director of the Café Europa branch in southern Jerusalem. “These are people whose past is always part of their present. They don’t need ceremonies and milestones to remember it. There are those who prefer to look away, not to hear about it and be reminded and there are those who run from ceremony to ceremony to give their testimony. Here we aren’t dealing with the Holocaust and aren’t deciding for anyone how they should cope with what transpired. We only want to provide a warm network of support that they’ll feel a part of and where they’ll feel safe and happy.”
The Jerusalem Foundation has a plan for the next decade and Café Europa has a special place of importance among our priorities for the years to come. This is part of our efforts to support communal strength in Jerusalem, an important sphere of activity that is one of the foundation stones of our work in the city; empowering the diverse communities of Jerusalem, responding to the different needs of each community, so that all the people who comprise this city, the most complex and diverse in all of Israel, will feel at home.
It is our duty to continue to provide for the city’s Holocaust survivors, to give them a warm and welcoming “home.” Friends of the Jerusalem Foundation around the world have helped to make this possible but there is more to be done. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we should and must also remember those who are still living; those who survived.
Our moral obligation is to enable them to grow old with grace, to have a sense of safety and love in a world that gave them much too little of these things when they were just children. Seven thousand Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem receive regular assistance from social services in the city. The years are passing and there are less and less of them. Seventy-five years since the liberation of Auschwitz is an important date for us as a society, as the next generation that must know, remember and tell the story. But for the survivors living among us some things are even more important.
The author is the president of the Jerusalem Foundation.