Had she lived, Anne Frank would be in her early 90s today. It’s not hard to believe she’d still be alive, either: At Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS), Schechter Holocaust Services is one of the fastest-growing areas of need. Over the past six years, the decades-old group—which allows Holocaust survivors to age with dignity, fostering meaningful connections with one another and the broader Jewish community—has increased the number of survivors served by 119%. They’re expecting a 30% year-over-year increase in the next three years.
However, about a third of survivors live in poverty. In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, coming up on Jan. 27 (the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau), I chatted with Lora Tarlin, who directs Schechter Holocaust Services for JF&CS, about the program.
She works with survivors like 95-year-old Frima Iosilevich, who now lives in a small Brookline apartment. Today, she receives financial assistance, Family Table groceries and participates in a Friendly Visitor program.
Iosilevich was born and raised in Odessa, Ukraine. When World War II started, her family tried to escape by boat. When they arrived at the pier, there was a bomb—and they had to flee. As it turned out, the boat was bombed by Nazis. Had they boarded, she would’ve died. She ultimately escaped to Russia, where she met friends on the playground who would suddenly turn on her when discovering her Jewishness.
She arrived in the United States in the early 1980s and worked until she was almost 80 years old, ultimately receiving Social Security checks. Her husband was an engineer, but six years ago, he became sick: He fell, broke his hip and developed severe dementia. He needed care, and Iosilevich needed support: “The money we’d saved was enough only for one year,” she says. She reached out to JF&CS for help.
“I can’t even describe to you: It was such a big relief. They said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll try to help you. It was like they gave me a second life,” she says.
Tarlin notes that survivors are living longer overall, although their health needs are acute and different from the general geriatric population. Many have Alzheimer’s or are reliving the trauma of childhood—loud noises or disruption could make them incredibly agitated or nervous. Depression is also a problem.
“There was a study done about seven or eight years ago in Israel that survivors live seven years longer than most older adults, although they don’t live more healthfully. They are sicker, but they do live longer—which makes sense because they survived the horrors of the Holocaust. There is something in them that obviously makes them a little bit stronger and resilient,” Tarlin says.
Schechter Holocaust Services offers essential resources like socialization, groceries and personal care to allow people like Iosilevich to stay in their own homes as long as possible as opposed to relocating to assisted living or a nursing home.
“It’s re-traumatizing them to put them in a nursing home or assisted living,” she says. This is, after all, a group that has cruelly left the safety of home once before. COVID has also added to isolation, especially with new safety protocols that spark devastating childhood memories.
“Especially when the pandemic started, [clients] would open the door and people would be like, ‘Go back inside—not because we don’t want to see you, but because we want to be able to see you!’ In the 1940s, if they opened the door, they could be shot,” she says.
Tarlin is always looking for volunteers, especially those conversant in Russian (the majority of her clients are Russian-speaking). Tech-savvy people who can troubleshoot computers and gadgets are also welcome. The biggest need, though, is money: The group estimates a need of about $2.5 million over the next five years. Funds go to support things like food and personal hygiene items, but also to provide something intangible: support and love.
“What we do is we make sure they feel really good about being alive and being with us. We bring comfort to them,” Tarlin says.
Learn more about how you can get involved here.