Dignity restored

AMCHA adapts its services for Holocaust survivors to make them feel less alone

Jerusalem AMCHA members pose for ‘In Jerusalem.’ (photo credit: Benji Rosen)
Jerusalem AMCHA members pose for ‘In Jerusalem.’
(photo credit: Benji Rosen)
For years after the Holocaust, a conspiracy of silence prevailed. While the genocide and the wartime atrocities were overwhelmingly condemned and publicized, much of the world avoided the more than a million survivors and their enduring pain.
Psychologists even avoided discussing it with their survivor-patients because it provoked not only their patients’ nightmares, but also their own fears. It wasn’t uncommon for a psychologist to admit he completely shied away from the Holocaust.
AMCHA – the national Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support of Survivors of the Holocaust and the Second Generation – was born of an effort to break this culture of silence. A group of mental health professionals and Holocaust survivors, led by the late Manfred Klafter, created the center to provide non-traditional psychological treatment to survivors and enable them to receive support through a community that understood them.
Since its establishment in 1987, the Jerusalem-based organization has expanded to 14 branches throughout the country, which provide psychotherapy and social clubs for Holocaust survivors and their families, as well as intergenerational activities for adolescents and younger adults. It recently extended its services to victims of adversity and trauma and to elderly people who were not involved in the Shoah.
Now, however, as more than two-thirds of the country’s approximately 180,000 Holocaust survivors are at least 80 years old, it seems that a new culture is emerging – one of neglect.
According to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, more than a third of the country’s Holocaust survivors live alone. Some 10,000 survivors have no family, and 87 percent of survivors who request financial aid live in poverty on less than NIS 5,000 a month.
IT’S TRUE that a Holocaust survivor’s problems are similar to the overall struggles of an aging population, says retired AMCHA psychologist Giselle Cycowicz, herself a survivor.
“The difference,” she asserts, “[is that] there are much fewer family members left that they can turn to. Usually families help each other. But there is no family.
Many times a father and a mother who are Holocaust survivors remain alone, bereft of any other family members. There was a brother. A sister. They died because they were also old. Maybe they didn’t survive. There was nobody.”
Meanwhile, the center is adjusting its services to meet survivors’ changing needs. The organization is especially addressing survivors’ loneliness and trying to ensure that they interact with younger generations. Because many survivors are becoming too frail attend the centers for psychotherapy, AMCHA now conducts 25% of its psychotherapeutic hours at the individuals’ homes.
But the director of AMCHA’s Jerusalem branch, Johanna Gottesfeld, takes offense at people referring to the organization as “just” a psychological clinic.
“For many survivors, it’s a home,” she says. “It’s somewhere they come, they drop in, and they say hello. They come to get help with all kinds of things. They come to meet people. They come for cups of coffee.”
A list of activities the Jerusalem branch offers includes language classes in English, Hebrew and Yiddish, lectures and concerts, Tanach (Hebrew Bible) classes, Feldenkrais and yoga. It is open five days every week, from Sunday to Thursday.
Its tight-knight community is on display any Tuesday morning, when the Jerusalem branch is alive with activity. At least a dozen survivors elbow their way through the city center and Ben-Yehuda Street, and head up eight floors of an office building just to play bridge or learn English.
In the three-hour bridge class, there is empathy and respect among the six survivors playing, not to mention competitiveness, whether they are betting on their cards at the start of a game or chit-chatting during gameplay. You can sometimes sense their pain, says one of the two bridge teachers.
Gottesfeld emphasizes the therapeutic importance of having such activities in addition to conventional treatment.
“[Survivors] can talk freely about what they went through and not feel like outsiders or different,” she says.
Just down the hall, four women are learning English from the American wife of a survivor. Ziva Segal implies that the friendliness at AMCHA is a refreshing break from the repetitive everyday routine of these women in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
At AMCHA, she says, it’s always “Shalom, shalom.” Outside AMCHA, “you are alone. You are sometimes in the house. In the afternoon, you eat. Then,” she chuckles, “the day is finished.”
Despite her laughter, Segal holds back tears when asked about her family.
“Family?” she says, “They have no time for me.”
What about friends? “Friends I have not,” she mutters. “It is very hard to find somebody to be friends with when you are old.... I don’t know nobody.”
The room nods in agreement. “Nobody,” they echo.
This predicament is only worsening as the bulk of survivors age.
“Naturally the need for home therapy will be growing in the coming years,” says the organization’s national director, Martin Auerbach.
However, AMCHA is also trying to reach out to survivors in other ways. During recent storm Alexa, for instance, it dispatched volunteers and social workers to help out snowed-in survivors who required anything from a dogwalker, to an escort to the hospital for hypothermia.
The organization is also experimenting with new technology platforms to ensure that the youngest generations interact with, or at least have a chance to hear, the testimonies of those remaining survivors. Through a project funded by UJA-Federation of New York, young volunteers work with Holocaust survivors to upload their video testimonies online.
Another program facilitates young people meeting 10 to 12 times with survivors to create a computer-generated timeline of their lives. In addition UJA supports home visits, as well as a social club of Holocaust survivors from the FSU, at AMCHA Beersheva.
Last week, Cycowicz joined Auerbach at the Jerusalem center to speak about the Holocaust to teenagers from synagogues Kol Haneshama in the capital and Rodeph Sholom in New York. The mostly 17-year-old Israelis and Americans were touring the country together and came to the talk straight from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
Cycowicz and Auerbach began the discussion by encouraging the teenagers to ask general questions about survivors: Who is a Holocaust survivor? Was this your first visit to Yad Vashem? Have you learned about the Holocaust in school? The group insisted on hearing Sikowitz’s experiences.
One of the chaperones, a New Yorker whose husband is an Israeli emigrant, informed the two AMCHA speakers that most of the American teenagers’ parents were eager for them to listen to Cycowicz, as they would be the last generation to hear Holocaust survivors.
Cycowicz began with her childhood in Hess, Czechoslovakia, her narrative traveling to the Auschwitz-Birkenau. She continually emphasized the subtleties of her loss of humanity.
It was “extremely humiliating, what we went through. This is what I felt. This was the Shoah for me,” she said.
From her father “wearing” glass shards on his hands and feet after being tortured by policemen for days, to Cycowicz never having toilet paper in Auschwitz, to her discovering how her father approached the fence at Auschwitz and yelled, “Tell them 30 of us are from the village of Hess. Tomorrow we won’t be here anymore.”
Meanwhile, everyone sat transfixed, teary-eyed and gaping. Someone gasped when Cycowicz recalled her family discovering after the war that their Jewish library had been defiled.
She went on to recount how she had found “solidarity” in a group of survivors in Borough Park, New York, where she lived before immigrating to Israel.
“You know they know what you feel,” she said.
This commonality exists among the 16,000 survivors involved with AMCHA all over Israel, though with survivors increasingly becoming confined to their homes, their connection to others is weakening.
“We tried to restore some of the dignity that they lost, and tried to give them the family that they lost,” says Cycowicz . “And we tried to relieve the loneliness that they feel because they are alone.”