Friday, February 10, 2006

The Rescuer

In my time with Joint, perhaps the most memorable person I've met is Syla. Affectionately known in her shtetl as "the Babushka", her untold story is inspirational and tragic. Syla is a real-life Jewish heroine whose bravery during the darkest times of Nazi occupation is the stuff of Hollywood movies and whose squalid state of living more than 60 years later should make us all take a step back and think about the debt we owe to some of those among us.

---JDC News Service---

Korostichev, Ukraine---Born in a small Ukrainian town populated by merchants from Germany, Syla learned to speak German from neighbors. This was rare among Jewish girls—so rare, in fact, it would eventually save her life and those of countless others.

In 1941, Hitler's army occupied Ukraine. The Einsatzgruppen, mobile Nazi killing squads, went from town to town in Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania and murdered nearly every Jew they found. Speaking German without any trace of an accent, Syla managed to convince the occupiers that she and her three children were German. So the Nazis gave her amnesty, and she routinely opened her home to Einsatzgruppen officers passing through. Syla turned her small house—she lived with her ailing mother and three children—into a de-facto Nazi pub. Ever the hostess, she served food and beer. She also paid close attention when the Nazis got drunk and boasted about the massacres they were planning.

The information Syla gathered became the basis of a crude but effective warning system for Jews in neighboring shtetls. Through her two sons—they made regular rounds under the cover of darkness—Syla delivered bags of salt to the doorsteps of Jews targeted for slaughter. Upon seeing the salt, the Jewish neighbor or friend knew he and his family had less than 24 hours to flee eastward.

It's impossible to know how many Jewish people Syla saved and how many young people today owe their lives to her. But we do know that this babushka, a Yiddishe Harriet Tubman, does not live like she should. When the Soviet Union collapsed so did the safety net Syla and those of her generation had taken for granted. Everything went up for grabs, and retirees were not educated or physically able to adapt to the free market. Moreover, the ruble imploded and, overnight, the money they had saved became worthless. The average retiree’s pension in Ukraine is $27 per month.

“When one takes into account the cost of medicines, especially for those suffering from chronic illness, survival becomes extremely difficult,” says Yitzak Averbuch, Ukraine country director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). “Often the Jewish elderly have no family, relatives or friends, as their loved ones were murdered by the Nazis, and their friends have either died or emigrated.

“No savings, just a tiny pension; no relatives, spouses, children or friends--how do they cope when they get really old, especially those bedridden or homebound?”

Syla is widowed. Two of her three children have died, and she has no contact with the third. Her damp and dilapidated, two-room hovel in the one-time shtetl of Korostichev has neither electricity nor running water. Power comes from a generator sitting amongst half a dozen live chickens that scamper back and forth in an open shed. Due to leg ulcerations and arthritis, she is almost completely immobile; she also suffers from asthma.

Each week a HesedMobile stops in Korostichev and Syla receives homecare, Meals-on-Wheels, holiday food packages, medication and medical consultations, emergency home repairs, blankets and heating fuel for the bitter winter months.

The Russian Academy of Languages recently defined "Hesed" as a new Russian word meaning "the provision of services with special compassion." Since the early 1990s, Jewish communities in North America, through targeted donations and allocations to the United Jewish Communities Annual Campaign, have partnered with JDC and local Jewish communal organizations to establish more than 174 Heseds in the FSU. These centers provide on-site recreation, communal meals and coordination of welfare services to more than 240,000 elderly Jews. More than 86 Heseds, like Hesed Shlomo—the Zhitomir center, which cares for Syla—operate mobile units as well.

"I want to thank people like you," Syla says to a North American visitor, who has accompanied a Hesed worker to her home one cold and damp morning. "You have not forgotten people like me."

How could we ever?


Blogger Alice said...

What a gem! Thanks for telling her story. God bless her.

I wonder how she was able to get her children to be super careful about what they said around those murderers. It makes my palms sweat just thinking about it.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

This is an incredible story. Thanks for pointing it out. Maybe if we raise more awareness of the circumstances of this heroic woman, more help will become available.

7:05 PM  

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