Back in May 2019, Bernie Igielski, a Holocaust survivor in his 90s with an outsized spirit, joined UJA’s staff Yom HaShoah commemoration to share the gratitude he feels every day despite everything he’s endured.
Fortunately for all of us, Bernie was available to speak again at this year’s UJA virtual community-wide Yom HaShoah commemoration. Holding nothing back, he spoke of the horrific loss of his family and the sheer luck that saved him again and again. This time, his words struck an even more powerful chord. It’s not just his resilience, although — in these times — there’s a lesson there for all of us. Rather, it was his insistence that kindness matters, the revelation that he had encountered kind people everywhere (even in post-war Germany), and his belief that the human capacity for good can overcome even the worst darkness. If you missed the event, you can watch it here.
As one viewer wrote in: “Amid all of the uncertainty and personal struggles we are facing today — it was unbelievably encouraging to hear from a survivor of the Holocaust. I was so moved by Bernie’s strength; I will carry his heartfelt advice with me forever.”
For the 36,000 Holocaust survivors in New York, 40% of whom live in poverty, the pandemic raises unique challenges. Advanced age — most are in their 80s and 90s — and health issues place them at high risk. And beyond the physical, there’s the emotional toll of isolation. Social workers at our nonprofit partners report that the lockdown and run on basic supplies are resurfacing trauma from an early life spent in hiding and years of food scarcity.
Thankfully, we’re also seeing how our nonprofit partners are pivoting to help. With our support, they’re increasing food distribution to reach more seniors and coordinating home deliveries. In-person sessions have become regular phone calls. As just one example, the staff from the Marion & Aaron Gural JCC — a UJA partner, where Bernie participates in Holocaust programming — called over 100 Holocaust survivors one by one on Tuesday, and each had a private Yom HaShoah candle-lighting.
Finding new ways to connect is what’s keeping so many of them (and so many of us) going.
That’s also what compelled a group of teens on Long Island to honor a Holocaust survivor, Rachel Epstein, in a very special way. The teens are all participants in UJA’s Witness Project, a program on Long Island that brings together young people and survivors over an extended period of time. Teens learn survivors’ stories and, at the end of the program, enact them in a performance or represent them through a piece of art. This week, Benji Richman, a graduate of the program, called together past and present participants to commemorate Yom HaShoah with Rachel. The teens drove by Rachel’s home in a caravan of 30 cars, leaving her flowers, balloons, and letters. As for Rachel — she said she’d remember this for the rest of her life. You can read more here.
Whether it’s a phone call to check in or a fleet of cars driving by, as Bernie passionately reminds us, it’s kindness — both giving and receiving — that makes the most unforgettable impression on a life.