The White House’s announcement last week that it will appoint a special envoy to assist Holocaust survivors living in poverty was met with great enthusiasm by some of the people who work directly with that aging population.
“We are very excited,” said Ellen Blalock, Holocaust survivor program and volunteer coordinator at the Jewish Social Service Agency. In 2012, JSSA served more than 200 Holocaust clients, over 40 of whom were new to the program. Two-thirds of those clients have annual incomes that fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, according to JSSA’s website.
“We are anxious to be as helpful as we can as they more forward,” Blalock added.
While speaking at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Centennial last week, Vice President Joe Biden said the White House will work with the Jewish community to help needy survivors. A special envoy at the Department of Health and Human Services will act as a liaison for survivors and the nonprofit community organizations that serve them.
A partnership with the AmeriCorps VISTA program to increase the number of volunteers helping Holocaust survivors will be established, Biden said. The White House also will explore public-private partnerships to increase funding for organizations that work with survivors.
Susan Turnbull, a board member at JSSA for more than 30 years, was present when Biden made the announcement. She was pleased that the Obama administration recognized the need for coordination and will name someone head that work. Coordination with AmeriCorps Vista and the various public-private partnerships is so important, she said.
Turnball said that Biden’s announcement “struck me as being so perfectly aligned with our community needs.” Turnbull, who also is chair-elect of Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said she hopes to play a role in this coordination and already has been contacted by the White House.
JSSA doesn’t keep a tally of how many survivors live in the greater D.C. area. But Blalock knows that those coming to her office are suffering the normal aging problems of being in their 80s and 90s, plus a host of other problems due to the trauma they experienced during World War II.
Without a lot of money, many don’t go to the doctor until it’s often too late. They are careful with what money they have and tend to buy less healthy foods. They have limited means of transportation and they are isolated, Blalock said.
“Our average survivor age is 85, and I think 15, 20 percent are over 90,” she noted.
Donations are needed to pay for transportation, kosher meals on wheels, assorted medical needs and ongoing social work services and therapy, she said. Last year, JSSA spent an average of $5,116 per survivor.
Blalock said JSSA is glad survivors are finally getting this new attention “particularly at the highest level of government.”
While excited now, Blalock said she will be even happier when things start happening. “Show me the money. Show me the projects. Show me the resources. This is not just about funding,” she said.
According to the Jewish Federations of North America, there are about 120,000 survivors in the United States, of whom about 25 percent live below the poverty line.
“As Jewish federations continue to raise needed funds to support social service programs for Holocaust survivors, we will use the momentum from the vice president’s announcement to draw extra attention to this cause,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America. “Enabling Holocaust survivors to age in place is vital for health, comfort and security, and brings dignity to this vulnerable population.”