When Yom Hashoah commemorations take place next week, the image in many people’s minds of Holocaust survivors may not reflect the lives of survivors living in the Washington area.
Of the 430 survivors receiving aid from Jewish Social Service Agency, a local nonprofit that receives money from the German government and other sources to care for Holocaust survivors, about 370 are from the former Soviet Union.
“For the most part, people in this community understand the Holocaust in terms of ‘Schindler’s List,’” said Ellen Blalock, JSSA’s Holocaust survivor program and volunteer coordinator. “They think of pin-striped uniforms and concentration camps. That idea, for the most part, does not include the Soviet experience.”
Jews in the Soviet Union were often killed by being shot, rather than in gas chambers, Blalock said, adding that the impact of the Holocaust on Jews in the Soviet bloc who fled the Nazis is often underestimated. Numbers from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum bear out Blalock’s claim — the museum estimates that 1.3 million Jews were murdered by shooting operations or gas wagons in the German-occupied Soviet Union during World War II.
Due to recent developments — including recognition from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany that Jews in the Soviet Union who fled the Nazi advance are entitled to survivor status, and the simple fact of survivors aging — the JSSA caseload of survivors has increased from about 230 in 2013 to roughly 430 today. Blalock added that 90 percent of local survivors live at or below the poverty line.
One program, overseen by optometrist Michael Berenhaus to provide survivors with eyeglasses, has helped JSSA provide services to this increased number of needy survivors it serves. The lenses are donated to the program by the company Essilor, and the company Eight to Eighty Eyeware provides the frames at half price. Berenhaus’ practice, Bethesda Vision Care, pays for the amount owed on the eyeglass frames. Medicare and Medicaid cover eye exams.
More than 80 survivors have been fitted with eyeglasses under the program, which began in 2015. That has freed up $27,000 in the JSSA budget to provide other services for survivors, Blalock said.
“People in this community need to be aware that survivors from the former Soviet Union are survivors, too,” she said. “Survivor status means that these people suffered a terrible loss, regardless of where they are from.”
“This is the most meaningful thing I do,” said Berenhaus, adding that his grandparents hosted survivors in New York City following World War II and that he is continuing his family’s tradition of helping survivors.
Berenhaus has expanded the program to Baltimore and Detroit, and he hopes to continue to extend the program oversees.
Blalock emphasized that the eyeglasses program and the care JSSA provides more broadly are significant beyond the material support they provide.
“The tangible thing we’re providing is eyeglasses, but at the same time this assures these people that they matter,” she said. “This serves souls and not just bodies.”