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A Safety Net for Holocaust Survivors during COVID-19

August 16, 2020 | by Rivka Ronda Robinson

It is our responsibility to take care of survivors and offer them peace in their final years.

Joel Fabian, an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor in Willingboro, N.J., was making ends meet by cleaning doctors' and lawyers' offices. Then the pandemic hit and he lost his three cleaning contracts.

“That was a big loss financially. When the offices shut down, they no longer needed my services,” Fabian told One practice has reopened but with strict cleaning protocols that require certification and special equipment which he doesn’t have.

Fabian, a Berlin native who survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp as a child, receives a restitution stipend from Germany every three months. He also has retirement savings but not enough to make up for income lost because of COVID-19. Fortunately, a nonprofit organization that supports thousands of Holocaust survivors across the United States is helping to bridge the gap, providing assistance with everything from groceries to utility bills.

It’s called KAVOD-Ensuring Dignity for Holocaust Survivors. John and Amy Israel Pregulman created the Memphis- and Denver-based organization in 2015 after learning that one-third of an estimated 80,000 survivors in the U.S. struggle to meet their basic needs during emergencies. “They are very good at hiding poverty. Amy and I have been in many survivors’ apartments and noticed that they didn’t have anything,” says John, a professional photographer who has documented nearly 1,200 survivors since 2012.

Many have to choose between heat or food, medicine or rent. Add in the crisis of this year’s pandemic, and vulnerable survivors are suffering even more.

Preserving Dignity for Courageous Souls

“Our survivors are getting older and are having bigger financial stresses. We only have a few years left with these courageous individuals and we feel it is our responsibility to take care of them and offer them peace in their final years. They have been through enough and as a human community, we are responsible,” declares Amy.

John and Amy Israel Pregulman with a survivor

KAVOD, which means honor and respect in Hebrew, partnered with Seed the Dream Foundation to co-create the KAVOD Survivors of the Holocaust Emergency Fund (SHEF) initiative in 2019. More than 20 philanthropists and foundations have joined Seed The Dream Foundation in the coalition to match local Jewish federations dollar-for-dollar to create accessible money to cover urgent, emergency unmet needs. These include food, rent support, home repairs, emergency transportation, and medical, dental and vision care.

Needs during the pandemic have ranged from air-conditioning units for a couple in a sweltering walk-up apartment in New York to a back-order of hearing aids for 34 survivors in Cleveland, Ohio.

KAVOD SHEF partners with caseworkers to identify needs, then gives money through Jewish agencies in 27 major cities. “We have always functioned as a secondary resource to fill the gap in emergencies,” says Amy. “It’s really making an impact for the communities and for the agencies.”

Gail Belfer, director of Holocaust Survivor Services and Advocacy for Jewish Family & Children's Service of Southern New Jersey, would agree. “Our nurse heard about this organization on NPR – we reached out and spoke to Amy. It was unbelievable to hear there’s no catch, a philanthropic foundation providing dollars to Holocaust survivors. There are Holocaust survivors that need more than the Claims Conference can provide. Also they may have needs that aren’t covered by the Claims Conference guidelines.”

Belfer realizes it would be challenging to provide emergency services without KAVOD SHEF’s support. “Our clients may be in their most vulnerable time,” she says, “and we’re trying to prevent re-traumatization.”

COVID Stressors Evoke Flashbacks

When COVID hit in March, Fabian started having flashbacks – and not only because he is a Holocaust survivor. He also spent 21 years in the U.S. Army as a medic and licensed practical nurse. He served on the front lines in the Vietnam War. The sense of isolation and a loss of control brought up old images.

“When you restrict like this, your mind goes wandering,” he says, adding his appreciation for the emotional as well as material support from Jewish Family & Children’s Service. “They call me at least twice a week and check on me constantly.”

Fabian’s daughter, Robin, lives with him, but he misses his social life. A saving grace is regular Café Europa social support Zoom meetings for survivors.

He also benefits from thinking of others. “I have a friend who lives by himself, and I check up on him every day by phone just to keep him going. I know what it’s like to be isolated.”

Lucky for Life

Fabian was just 4 when the Nazis forced him, his parents and two younger sisters from their Berlin home to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. A few months later, they eluded death. Somehow a German rabbi convinced Nazi wardens to delay putting them on a train bound for Auschwitz until Fabian’s father returned from a forced work detail in Berlin. The children hid in a large laundry basket while the drama played out.

Joel Fabian with a nurse at a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, where he is recovering from tuberculosis he contracted in Theresienstadt.

After the train left Theresienstadt for Auschwitz, their names never appeared on another list for deportation. “Most Holocaust survivors will tell you the same thing: We happened to be at the right place at the right time,” says Fabian.

The Allies liberated Theresienstadt when he was 7. His father, Dr. Hans Erich Fabian, was a lawyer and judge in Berlin before their expulsion. The elder Fabian took a group of survivors back to Berlin, where he became president of the first Jewish community and founded a Jewish newspaper. He also started the first synagogue to open there after the war, and it is now the largest synagogue in the city.

Meanwhile, young Joel spent two years in a Swiss sanitarium to recover from tuberculosis. By the time the family reunited, tensions were boiling in Berlin as the Cold War heated up.

The Fabians seized a chance to emigrate to the U.S. in 1949. When they arrived under the Displaced Persons Act, Dr. Fabian declared to the press that the Germans were still Nazis at heart and the 7,500 Jews still in Berlin were in desperate straits.

Joel Fabian often has relived the horrors of those years by educating thousands of schoolchildren about the Holocaust and life as a child survivor. But like much else during the pandemic, his talks are on hold now.

As much as Fabian enjoys giving back to society, he also appreciates receiving the help he needs. He praises Gail Belfer, Jewish Family & Children’s Service and by extension, KAVOD SHEF. “You wake up in the morning and don’t have to wonder where your next meal’s coming from. It’s a terrific program and I can’t say enough about it. These people are on the front lines. They’re the unsung heroes, the people who step up and help without any fanfare.”

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