For Holocaust survivors, coronavirus pandemic reopens old wounds and charities step up to help

Around 36,000 Holocaust survivors live in New York, 40% of whom live in poverty

April 19, 2020, 9:02 AM

Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust as part of a movement to eradicate Europe's Jewish population, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

During this time, people were taken to concentration camps and subsequently stripped of their humanity, starved, overworked, used as medical experiments and ultimately killed in gas chambers -- one of the most controversial and largest locations being Auschwitz-Birkenau. While the death toll from the Holocaust was exceptionally high, many survivors managed to escape persecution and were ultimately liberated at the end of World War II.

On Monday, participants around the world will recognize Yom HaShoah -- a day set aside each year in remembrance of the Holocaust -- to honor the memories of loved ones who perished by genocide, and recognize those who no longer have family left to do so on their behalf.

This year has been especially tough for survivors and those who care for them -- with the novel coronavirus forcing Passover Seders to be canceled and leaving many unable to get the help that they need. It is also deeply traumatizing, echoing their lives decades ago when they were unable to move around and didn't have food and other resources.

During this time a number of charitable organizations have stepped in to help, including New Yorker Evan Rosenberg's philanthropic passion project called 333 Charity, which he started last year after learning the story of his family's legacy in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

In this Dec. 5, 2019, file photo, the railway tracks entering the main building at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp are pictured.
Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

COVID-19: A traumatizing trigger for Holocaust survivors

This year, Holocaust survivors were unable to celebrate Passover with loved ones due to the risk of leaving their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to coronavirus restrictions, survivors typically struggle with a lack of resources and isolation.

Rosenberg temporarily altered his charity's mission (selling apparel to raise money for survivors in conjunction with the non-profit UJA-Federation of New York) to donate Kosher meals to survivors for Passover during the challenging time. He has also committed to funding delivery meals and OWYN meal replacement shakes for survivors as long as the pandemic is present.

"These survivors cannot leave their houses, they're all elderly," he said. "To be able to get them meals and provide for them is something that has become a passion."

"Over the last three to four weeks, for our clients, hearing stories of people hoarding food and not having food at the stores, and no toilet paper and people on lockdown, and the president saying we are not allowed to leave houses -- all of this is deeply re-traumatizing for Holocaust survivors," added Anat Barber, assistant director of capital gifts and special initiatives for the UJA-Federation of New York. "It just harkens back to their earlier experiences where they didn't have freedom of movement, they didn't know if they'd have enough food, they couldn't get what they needed. The fact that Jewish life is not happening for them is so deeply damaging."

Overall, the UJA-Federation of New York estimates there is an additional need for $1 million to cover the next two to three months as COVID-19 progresses.

However, once things return to a sense of normalcy, Rosenberg plans to host a coffee house event with the UJA-Federation of New York, which will bring 60 survivors together for social interaction that they normally would never have. Transportation, meals and live music will be provided free of charge to participants.

"The goal is to turn 333 into a universal message that you can overcome anything," Rosenberg said. "There have been terrible things that have happened, both in the past and currently with the COVID-19 situation, but you can look at the number and have a sense we will get past this."

The conception of 333 Charity

During Hanukkah in 2014, Rosenberg found himself standing inside his New York City apartment -- located at 333 E. 46th Street -- reading a letter from his grandmother that detailed the tribulations their family experienced during the Holocaust.

"The reason she wrote the letter is because she saw my address. She began writing the letter, but the number 333 has this meaning in our family, which brought her to share our story with me," Rosenberg said.

According to his grandmother, Rosenberg's great-aunt was taken to Auschwitz with her husband and three children from their home in Beregszász, in the Slovak region of Czechoslovakia. While they were in the concentration camp, they kept seeing families getting separated. Parents would be taken away from their children and did not return.

Out of fear of being killed, Rosenberg's great-aunt instilled a message with her children: "If you ever lose me, find your uncle at 333 7th Avenue in New York. That's where your salvation is going to be if things end and we make it out. That's where you have to make it and that's how our family will survive," the letter detailed.

Evan Rosenberg, founder of Charity 333, speaks with his grandmother about their family's legacy and experience during the Holocaust.
Evan Rosenberg

Unfortunately, Rosenberg's great-aunt predicted her fate and the day eventually came when Nazi soldiers pulled her away from her family. But during her strife, she flashed three fingers in the air as a final reminder to her children. Weeks later, the war ended and her children were able to get on a boat traveling to New York City where they reunited with their uncle at the aforementioned address.

It is said that the number 333 saved their family and is the reason their legacy transpired, according to Rosenberg.

"At that point, I wasn't really seeing the number or thinking about it," Rosenberg said. "I sat there and was thinking about the letter, and I called my grandma and said: 'Just so you know, this is one of the most touching letters that I've ever received.'"

But the number 333 did not stop following Rosenberg after digesting his family's story. In fact, it continues to pop up in unexpected ways to this day: license plates, ticket numbers, a dry cleaning locker, his work address -- just to name a few experiences.

In fact, Rosenberg felt so moved by his family's story he had the numbers carbon copied from his grandmother's handwriting in the form of a tattoo on his forearm to serve as a talking point with strangers.

"I don't just want to talk to Jewish people, I want to talk to everyone," Rosenberg said. "It's kind of taken on that kind of message where obviously it does effect Jewish people, but there are people of all ages, races, you name it. They're connecting with this message of no matter how hard things seem they can be, it can always be worse. There are ways we can work together and there is always hope."

333 Charity, which has applied for 501(c)3 status, sells apparel that is emblazoned with the number "333" to help continue the conversation about the Holocaust. The non-profit organization also accepts monetary donations. One-hundred percent of sales and donations are gifted to the UJA-Federation of New York to support Holocaust survivors.

"It's been powerful to watch how far this has gone," Rosenberg said. "It's taken off more than I ever imagined it would in such a short amount of time. People from around the world are ordering, donating and messaging me asking to be put in touch with Holocaust survivors. This has the power to really connect people and really get them to want to do better, and push themselves forward."

PHOTO: 333 Charity founder Evan Rosenberg models apparel the non-profit organization sells to raise money for Holocaust survivors.
333 Charity founder Evan Rosenberg models apparel his non-profit organization sells to raise money for Holocaust survivors.
Gina Masilotti

Caring for Holocaust survivors

As Holocaust survivors age, they require more care due to earlier tribulations in life such as malnutrition in their younger years.

To date, 200,000 Holocaust survivors are living in Israel, 25% of whom are poor. In the New York-area alone, 40% of 36,000 survivors are living at or below the poverty line, according to the UJA-Federation of New York.

The UJA-Federation of New York runs a community initiative to raise funds for Holocaust survivors. Their funding provides survivors with home-based care, counseling with social workers and social programs that bring joy into their lives. On average, their clients range in age from mid-70s to as old as 101 years old.

This undated file photo shows the main gate of the Auschwitz death camp complex in occupied-Poland. The writing over the gate reads 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work Sets You Free).
AP Photo

"We provide our survivors with money to cover food, medicine, rent or any one-time large expense that otherwise would send them spiraling into a crisis," Barber said. "This allows our workers to pull on this pool of funds to meet the clients' needs."

Statistically speaking, survivors have fewer living relatives. Due to this, the loss of a spouse or friend can trigger trauma from their past experiences living through the Holocaust, according to Barber.

"We are really trying to have these clients who were so traumatized earlier on in life end their life and live their life with the utmost dignity, and feel the warm embrace of community around them," Barber said. "We want them knowing that we are there for them, we did not forget them, and what we say in our work is: 'We'll never forget those who passed and those who perished, and we'll also never forget and never stop caring for those who survived.'"

The cost of caring for Holocaust survivors will not abate until 2025, according to the UJA-Federation of New York.

"As every last survivor turns to us for help, we are going to be there to respond to their call and be their sort of last living relative," Barber said. "We are really there until the end."

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