“Are there any left? I thought they were all gone.”
This is a common refrain regarding Holocaust survivors and one that Cherie Aviv, a community volunteer, hears often. An estimated 50,000 survivors reside in the United States, and roughly 25% of them live at or below the poverty line. So, Aviv has made it her mission to communicate that yes, survivors are very much still with us, and more importantly, they need our help.
Historically, survivor support has come from the Claims Conference, a fiscal agent established in 1951 that liaises with the German government to advocate for Holocaust survivors and secure financial reparations. These Claims Conference grants primarily cover homecare allocations and administrative expenses, leaving few resources for anything else.
In 2016, to address this shortfall, Aviv founded the Holocaust Survivor Support Fund (HSSF), which is convened by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and operates as a collaborative of six partner entities, including Jewish Family & Career Services of Atlanta (JF&CS) and Jewish HomeLife (JHL). As HSSF fundraises, these partners offer day-to-day assistance in the form of medical care, hearing aids, home-delivered meals, transportation, grocery gift cards, and more.
Initially, HSSF focused its efforts on survivors in Georgia. However, in 2019, the Claims Conference asked JF&CS to expand service delivery to the Southeast where a significant survivor base was living beyond the catchment area of Claims Conference grantees. HSSF stepped up to raise the necessary philanthropic investment, and JF&CS now coordinates with local nonprofits to serve the Southeast more broadly, including survivors living in the Carolinas.
For Aviv, the work of caring for survivors is deeply personal. Her mother-in-law, who was liberated from the Bergen-Belson concentration camp, did not speak much of her journey. But later in life, she developed Alzheimer’s, and the walls that had blocked those memories finally fell away.
“I could see firsthand her personal trauma that she’d safeguarded from the family,” says Aviv. “My husband and I could afford to be home and take care of her, but I know others in similar positions cannot. So, through HSSF, I fundraise to help the survivors that don’t have someone to help.”
Rich Walter, chief of programs and grantmaking at the Federation, shares:
“It is inherent in our value system to respect the elderly. But the survivor population is one we have a special obligation to. It’s always been a communal agenda, and it plays out not just in local investments, but also in the efforts of the JFNA and others lobbying the federal government for additional resources.”
Just over 25 years ago, Jewish communities helped these FSU survivors come and settle in the United States as part of “Operation Exodus.” When they arrived, the survivors struggled with the language barrier and found their skillsets weren’t recognized by American employers. As a result, they took low-paying jobs, and some couldn’t accumulate wealth. Of the FSU survivors living in the Carolinas (and being served by HSSF), 68% are eligible for Medicaid.
Together with local social service agencies, HSSF can maximize the funds available to this vulnerable population. As Walter explains: “The homecare and supplemental programs provided by HSSF are about helping people age in place with dignity.”
For cognitively impaired survivors, remaining at home for as long as possible is paramount, since assisted living environments and nursing homes can cause distress and disorientation, ultimately triggering the pain of the past.
Some HSSF supporters have assumed that HSSF will need fewer dollars as time goes on and survivors grow older, but the opposite is true. “I’ve conjectured that we’ll need funds through 2030, so that’s our target,” Aviv says. “We might be serving less survivors, but their needs will be more intense, and the cost of homecare will increase.”
The war in Ukraine, along with a troubling rise in antisemitism, has renewed interest in charitable giving, in part, to preserve survivors’ history.
Aviv shares, “We are honored that The Leon Levine Foundation is part of this outreach to care for Holocaust survivors in the Carolinas in their final years. Knowing the history of Leon Levine, caring for those who needed it most, truly touches my heart. We are most appreciative.”
She adds, “For Jews and non-Jews alike, this current war raises questions like ‘Could what happened back then happen again?’ Part of my role as Chair of the HSSF is obviously to secure funds, but my personal goal is to conduct personalized education efforts on a community level.”
Although events have been harder to implement post-Covid, Aviv treasures her time as an advocate. She enjoys gathering people in joyful experiences and listening to survivors share their memories.
In the Jewish faith, tikkun olam is the concept of repairing the world through acts of kindness and justice for all. But first, brokenness must be acknowledged. The HSSF has demonstrated what it means to honor and mourn tragedy while shining a light on all of the promise that the future still holds.
To date, TLLF has awarded $225,000 to HSSF to supplement the needs of Holocaust survivors in the Carolinas.