Trying to fill the void

Laad volunteers visit thousands of Shoah survivors to inform them of their legal rights and help with day-to-day chores.

Laad voluneer_311 (photo credit: Laad)
Laad voluneer_311
(photo credit: Laad)
It’s been 60 years since Ilana Raday and her mother fled the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, or Kovne as the Jews called it, just before the German army rolled into town.
She was only a few years old, but her anger over the murder of almost all her relatives by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators – including her beloved grandmother of whom she has faint but fond memories – remains to this day.
“I will never step foot in that country,” Raday said of Germany during a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post at a quaint café in central Tel Aviv.
“Never,” she added for good measure.
Although Raday has gone on to live a happy and prosperous life in Israel, marrying, having children and a successful career as a lawyer, she has struggled to live with the painful memories of her early childhood.
But recently she’s found a productive way of channeling her feelings of loss.
Since Rosh Hashana, Raday has been working with Laad, an organization dedicated to helping Holocaust survivors. Each year the group trains dozens of volunteers like Raday to make house calls informing survivors of their legal rights, helping with day-to-day chores and, perhaps most important, offering companionship to the survivors who in their old age often feel neglected and lonely.
“I came with a flower in my hand,” Raday said of the first time she made a house call on a survivor, an immigrant from Russia whose family had been forced to evacuate from Ukraine during World War II. She brought the flower despite advice by psychologists to Laad volunteers during their training to refrain from giving or accepting gifts in order to avoid unnecessary complications.
“Then I was offered a cup of tea,” Raday remembered with a sense of mischief, “and again I broke the rules and said yes.”
Laad is a Jewish Agency initiative in collaboration with the Conference on Jewish Material Against Germany, better known as the Claims Conference. Each year since 2003, hundreds of Laad volunteers have visited thousands of survivors helping fill a void that sometimes even close-knit families cannot.
“Families, children and grandchildren, call once a month and ask how their grandparents are doing,” said Gerta, who works for Laad. “But in between they have time to slowly go over their lives. Often they dwell on the dark times.”
Laad volunteers come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are young students who receive scholarships in return for their participation. Others are pensioners who like to give back to society. Many, like Raday, come from families directly affected by the horrors of the Holocaust or are Holocaust survivors themselves – but not all.
For instance, one of the volunteers in Jerusalem is an Arab woman, Laad officials said.
Meeting with the survivors can be challenging. Many are ailing and aren’t very communicative, but sometimes beautiful friendships are forged. Raday and Yitzhack Steinfeld, a Hungarian-born survivor who lived through the German occupation of Budapest, became good friends from the first time she visited.
“The Nazis shot everyone who had to vacate themselves during the death march from Budapest, so he learned to restrain himself; to this day he is plagued by health issues related to that incident,” Raday said.
After the war, Steinfeld found his way to Israel, settled down and started a family. Like Raday, he has children and grandchildren with whom he is close. Nonetheless, having Raday visit at least once a month brightens up his days.
On the day Raday and Steinfeld were to be interviewed by the Post, he fell and hurt his arm. He was only lightly injured with a few bruises, Raday said, but his injury illustrates the frail health of many of the survivors, now well in their 80s and older, are experiencing.
“For the survivors of the Holocaust who are now in their old age, a visit by a volunteer can make a huge difference and it’s important that we make this effort now while we can still make a difference,” Raday said.
Readers interested in volunteering for the Laad program are invited to visit JAFI’s website at Hebrew/Israel/Laad