Eva Lopatinskaya is a 93-year-old widow living alone in a two-room apartment in Odessa. Bed-ridden and suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure, and poor vision, Eva is surviving only with the help of Odessa’s Hesed Shaarey Tzion, funded by the Claims Conference. I met Eva recently along with board members Baruch Shub and Rabbi Menachem Hacohen while visiting Odessa.
Eva was born in Odessa and married in 1936. When the war began, she was evacuated to Kazakhstan with her parents. After returning to Odessa Eva went to work in the central post office. Her only son was killed in a car accident in 1951 and her husband passed away just short of what would have been the couple’s 55th anniversary. Now, Eva’s most regular companion is her homecare worker. She spends most of her time in a hospital bed provided by the Claims Conference through the Hesed. While we were visiting, she became visibly upset that she could not sit up to greet us, fighting with her homecare provider who insisted that Eva would suffer more than just indignity if she were to sit up. “It was very important that we stay and talk and keep her company,” Baruch recounted after the visit.
Eva’s shelves are lined with more than 30 medications, which she receives through the Hesed. She also receives homecare, food, winter relief, and laundry services through Claims Conference allocations to Hesed Shaarey Tzion.
Eva is just one of the more than 34,000 estimated Nazi victims living in Ukraine, the second largest population in Eastern Europe. Each of the Nazi victims who Baruch, Menachem, and I met in Odessa was living in a heart-breaking situation, and it is only with the Hesed’s help that they can receive the care they desperately need.
Baruch met Lisa Kestel’man, 91, who was born in Odessa and evacuated with her mother to Uzbekistan when the war broke out. There she worked as a nurse and after the war she attended medical school and worked as a doctor for several years. Lisa never married and now lives alone in a one-room apartment, suffering from heart disease, cerebral spasms, high blood pressure, and poor vision.
Lisa’s situation, as described by Baruch, was “miserable,” especially considering she had dedicated her life to healing others. But thanks to the Claims Conference-supported Hesed, she receives homecare, food assistance, winter relief, and medical services all of which would be impossible on her government benefits alone.
“They were grateful all the time we were there,” Baruch says of the people we visited. “Thanks to the aid that they’re getting they are staying alive and somehow in a human state.”
Despite the large number of Nazi victims living in the region, a whole generation grew up under Communist rule knowing little to nothing about the Nazi genocide of the Jews during World War II. As a result, their children, born in the years since the fall of Communism, also know little about that tragic time. There is a critical need to educate young Jews in the FSU about the Holocaust, which is why the Claims Conference has since 2007 sponsored Holocaust education at the Limmud FSU conference, one of which drew some 300 young Jews from around the FSU to Odessa last month for a week of learning. Limmud conferences around the world bring together Jews of all ages, backgrounds, and knowledge to learn about Jewish culture and religion, with discussions on topics from traditional texts to Yiddish theater to Israeli politics. I was invited to speak about the work of the Claims Conference, which by extension also means speaking about aspects of the Shoah.
“The Holocaust is not an easy subject to teach or to learn,” Limmud’s executive director, Chaim Chesler, told me. “We give people the ability to learn in a way they will enjoy and in a way that they will want to do it by themselves.”
After decades of repression under Communism, there is now a resurgence of interest in Jewish culture among Jews in the former Soviet Union. And with that comes the opportunity to educate this young generation about the Shoah and our joint responsibility to care for its victims. I was impressed by the conference participants’ hunger to learn more about their heritage and openness to learning about the dark chapter of the Holocaust. Their dedication is inspiring and ensures the continuation not only of the legacy of the Shoah but also of its victims.
During one session, Baruch spoke with some of the young attendees about his experiences in the Vilna Ghetto, and about the difficult moral choices people had to make in order to survive. For example, while Baruch was in the ghetto with his parents and three siblings, as well as some 30,000 other Jews, the Nazis ruled that they would hand out so-called “certificates of life” to 5,000 people chosen to work. Each person chosen could then extend the “gift” to three family members, leaving families like Baruch’s, with four children, with impossible decisions.
In the end, Baruch’s parents clandestinely moved him and his sister, the eldest of the four siblings, to a small village in Belarus while they remained in the ghetto with the two younger children. Baruch eventually returned to Vilna and joined in resistance efforts. Fighters in the ghetto were stymied by another impossible moral decision, Baruch related, when the Nazis threatened death if anybody was found missing from the ghetto. But in 1943, after a series of roundups and deportations, Baruch and a group of friends escaped into a nearby forest to join resistance efforts. The ghetto was liquidated two weeks later. Baruch then asked his audience what they might do if faced with such difficult decisions. “I doubt if anybody has an answer,” he told me.
Seeing a generation of Jews who grew up knowing little about their people’s history but so interested in sharing in that heritage was truly inspiring. Many Nazi victims in the FSU have never received even the smallest recognition of their suffering, an injustice the Claims Conference continues fighting to correct. The Claims Conference is dedicated to ensuring that the immediate needs of all Nazi victims like Eva Lopatinskaya are met, but it is because of programs like Limmud that their legacies will live on.
Below are links to articles about the Claims Conference’s involvement in Limmud FSU and in helping impoverished FSU Nazi victims.