Survivor Mitzvah Project helps the last, lost Holocaust survivors
by Bob Strauss
In the decades since the darkness of the Holocaust, many efforts have been made to make amends for the past - but they haven't reached everyone.
The Survivor Mitzvah Project is doing something to alleviate that. The L.A.-based 501(c)3 nonprofit provides much-needed cash and just as necessary outreach to elderly Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe who were skipped over by German reparations and other aid programs.
"I actually call these people The Unluckiest Generation," said the SMP's Zane Buzby, a former actress and TV sitcom director who has essentially devoted the last dozen years of her life to aiding these forgotten survivors.
"The oldest, over 100, survived the Czar's army," she continued. "They survived World War I, the Russian Revolution, the pogroms of the 1920s, upheaval, starvation, dislocation, the whole thing. Then in the 1930s, Stalin's enforced collectivization famines and the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism. Then the invasion of their country by Germany and the Holocaust. Then the Iron Curtain falls. It's not like there was an Internet and everyone went to Israel because they heard about it on Twitter; they got stuck there."
And still are today, ill and destitute in many cases.
At its annual Yom HaShoah Holocaust remembrance event Sunday, Mount Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary in Simi Valley will kick off its yearlong Six Million Coins fundraising drive for survivor care. Most of the money raised via specially designed Tzedakah boxes will go to elderly Jews and righteous rescuers in Southern California. But SMP was also chosen as one of the six charities that will receive funding.
"I know they reach out to survivors all over Eastern Europe, and we wanted to broaden the scope of this attempt to aid survivors by reaching out not just in our own backyard, but wherever there are survivors," said Mount Sinai's General Manager Leonard Lawrence, noting that Sunday's daylong events are free and open to all. "And I know that the Survivor Mitzvah Project is one of those organizations that is directly giving these people financial assistance. Their low cost of collecting, low cost of overhead and the fact that they are a grass-roots organization that is funneling this money very rapidly out to people in need are other reasons."
Most of SMP's recipients - some 2,000 of them at this point - live in dire poverty in rural areas of Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and other former Soviet states, as well as Slovakia. Many might be considered "the lucky ones "; they escaped the Nazi roundups and mass executions of World War II and avoided deportation to concentration camps. Some hid out in the woods for years, hooked up with partisans or joined the Red Army.
But history has a cruel sense of irony. It was common for these survivors to be the only people who returned to their farms and shtetls, if those places even still existed, after the war. Friends, lovers, relatives, teachers - all lost. They had little if any proof of their suffering compared with those captured by the obsessively record-keeping Nazis.
Then what meager savings the survivors managed to accumulate for their old age in the ensuing 45 years of Communist rule mostly disappeared when the Soviet Union broke up. Perestroika may have looked great to the West, but robber capitalism and the new nations' own currency woes left many citizens with nothing.
Of course, many charities do wonderful work for the survivors of Eastern Europe. But they may not even know that some of the most isolated ones are still living, and that's where SMP comes in. Buzby, accompanied by a multilingual Belorussian interpreter and a volunteer camera crew to record this dying generation's remembrances of their struggles and lost Yiddishkeit culture, travels to Eastern Europe every year to deliver cash to some of the survivors, drink daybreak vodka toasts (they insist) and seek out more of them.
"One town is six hours off the main road," Buzby noted. "It has two Jews left; he's 92, she's 91.
"Some towns were burnt down by the Einzatsgruppen," the Nazi SS' mobile death squads, Buzby explained. "Some are still standing, though they're mowing over many of them now. So we really get to see what life was like 100 years ago - log cabins, all-wooden synagogues, more horse-drawn carts than cars, like out of 'Fiddler on the Roof'."
And people whose small monthly pensions, if they get them at all, are enough to pay for food, medicine or heat, but not all three. She first learned of these neglected survivors' plight on a 2001 trip to Lithuania and Belarus to search for her grandparents' hometowns. In Lithuania she met the American Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz, who asked her to pay a visit - and bring a little cash - to some elderly Jews he knew of in Belarus. She did, and when she got home Buzby continued to mail them money.
Then a remarkable thing happened.
"I started getting these letters back," she recalled. "Some in Yiddish, most in Russian. Of course, I couldn't read them. So I'd go to the studio and if I passed a refrigerator repair truck coming down the street, I would like hail it down and go 'Wait! You must be Russian!' Then I'd run up to the window and say 'Translate this!'
"The letters were unbelievable, like 'I can't believe someone who I don't even know, don't know where you are or who you are, cares about me.' Some of the lines were like 'Your letter was like a ray of sunlight in the darkness,' 'This is like a gift from destiny.' I was like, Oh my God."
An archive on SMP's website, survivormitzvah.org, translates a variety of the letters.
For several years, Buzby enlisted family and acquaintances to support and correspond with her ever-growing roster of European friends. She reached out to other Jewish charities as the workload became overwhelming, but they had their own programs to support. Then one day Buzby found a small posting that read 'helping Holocaust survivors' and bore a 310 area code contact number.
She called, and Brentwood philanthropist Chic Wolk answered. Wolk, who'd spent some time studying Yiddish with Professor Katz in Britain years before Buzby met the scholar, was aware of the situation in Eastern Europe but had no idea anyone was doing something about it.
"I was praying for someone to assist me in trying to build an organization," Wolk said. "I had no computer skills, I can't type, my Yiddish is very poor."
Funds from Wolk, and Buzby's know-how, got SMP up and running in the middle of the last decade. She runs the operation with three part-time assistants and several volunteers, and says that just 6.1 percent of donations goes toward administration; the rest of the money that donors do not earmark for her trips gets into the hands of the survivors.
Last year, SMP raised close to $450,000, its best donation amount ever. But there's so much more to do, including archiving costs and making a documentary out of the survivors' invaluable testimony footage.
A fundraising event at the Museum of Tolerance last year brought out a battery of Hollywood actors - Ed Asner, Frances Fisher, Elliott Gould, Valerie Harper, Lainie Kazan, more - and others who read from the survivors' letters.
"I thought it was an amazing opportunity to get the word out on something that I knew nothing about," said Fisher ("Titanic," "Unforgiven"). "I read a lot of the letters, and it's just heartbreaking and inspiring to hear how grateful they were for the little that came to them. If they had to give up money or the correspondence, they said we don't need your money but keep your letters coming. I was very touched by it."
"I thought it was tragic, absolutely tragic," Kazan said of the situation. "I couldn't believe it. First of all, I didn't know there were this many survivors left, and living in squalor, the most horrendous conditions, in a country where they were abused and caged. I would encourage people to support Zane and her efforts and attach themselves to this wonderful cause."
David Siegel, Israel's counsel general to the southwest United States, is also a fan.
"Not only is it people, but they're pointing out whole communities that don't exist anymore," Siegel said. "Cemeteries, burnt-out synagogues, Jewish institutions that our historians don't even know existed. They're the last witnesses, and we happen to be . . . maybe privileged, but we also have that responsibility as the last generation that will have a firsthand experience with Holocaust survivors. We all have an opportunity to reach out to them and help these people, so it's almost a sacred thing that Zane is doing."
Buzby probably wouldn't go that far to describe what she does.
"We're like the first family that they've had in such a long time," she said of the survivors. "For me, it's like having thousands of grandparents!"
Make no mistake, though; Buzby understands the gravity of the situation.
"It's terrible," she said. "And I just think that for people who have survived so much and gone through so much to not be taken care of to the Nth degree is an absolute crime against humanity once again."
SURVIVOR MITZVAH PROJECT
The Survivor Mitzvah Project is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that delivers cash, aid and caring communication to elderly Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe.
SMP website: survivormitzvah.org/
Phoenix PD asks community to ‘Key on Three'
Crime reduction plan wants residents to focus on people, places and behaviors
by Allison Hurtado, Ahwatukee Foothills News
The chief of the Phoenix Police Department is working to get the word out to the public that the city of Phoenix's crime reduction plan for 2013 requires a shared responsibility between residents and officers.
Chief Daniel Garcia outlined just a portion of his crime reduction plan during a City Council Policy Meeting on Tuesday. His main message was for officers to “Focus on Five” and for residents to “Key on Three.”
The five areas patrol officers should focus on are people, those who may be suspects in crimes; places, that may be used for crime; behaviors; high priority enforcement locations, locations where crime may be happening; and high priority offensive locations, where a high priority crime may have occurred so that officers can understand what they may have missed. Garcia said he wants the public to key in on three of those areas: people, places and behaviors.
Officers on patrol are being asked to take a more proactive approach to policing. Garcia said he'll be asking each officer to have a plan for the day, the next 30 days, and the year. The plan calls for a campaign to get the community involved in reaching out to the police department to keep their neighborhood safe.
“If residents know their neighborhoods in these categories they can tell us when we meet with them to help us have a shared responsibility in policing,” Garcia said. “We cannot do it alone. We need to work together on a common cause.”
Garcia's overall plan has five pillars: reinforcing the mission of policing, enhancing community policing, enhancing technological capabilities, accountability measures, and increase community confidence. All the pillars are on a foundation of policing with a purpose, which has been Garcia's slogan since he took over the department in May of 2012.
“Whenever a police chief unveils a crime reduction plan to their community sometimes there's a fear in the community that we're going to start making mass arrests,” Garcia said. “I want to ensure you that that's not what this plan is about. This plan focuses our officers. I have found that when our officers are focused on a mission and committed to that mission nothing will hold us back. The foundation of our mission is policing with a purpose … that will not change.”
For more information on the Phoenix Police Department, visit phoenix.gov/police