I was raised in a family that wasn’t religious with my father being from a Catholic family and my mother belonging to a Jewish family. My parents were married by both a Priest and a Rabbi which living in Brooklyn, New York wasn’t considered too uncommon.
By the time my brother and I were born, my parents had moved to upstate New York and chose to raise my brother and I to respect both faiths. For the most part we were raised Jewish even though they didn’t push us in one direction or the other, they wanted it to be our choice which faith we instinctively felt that we belong to.
Looking back, I remember traveling to my mother’s parents house in Brooklyn and spending a lot of time with her side of the family. Every year her family would gather at a hotel upstate for a reunion.
As a child, I remember hearing a story about a family member who was a Holocaust survivor, but at the time I was young and still finding myself. I didn’t know what questions to ask or how to approach the subject.
It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to interview Masha Pearl, Executive Director of The Blue Card which is an organization that helps needy aging Holocaust survivors with direct financial assistance. Hearing Pearl’s story in addition to learning about her organization, caused me to have a conversation with my mother in which I learned about my own family history and its connection to the Holocaust.
What amazed me the most is according to The Blue Card “There are approximately 100,000 Holocaust survivors, one third of which live at, or below the poverty level”
Below is my interview with Masha Pearl.
Can you tell me about yourself and The Blue Card?
I was born in Moscow and moved to the United States with my family when I was eight years old. Having studied philosophy, politics and law at Binghamton University, I always believed that I would pursue a career as an attorney. However, once I became acquainted with The Blue Card, I knew right away that I wanted to be part of this organization.
My grandparents on both sides escaped Nazi persecution, and many of their family members did not survive the Holocaust therefore The Blue Card mission is very dear to me. I started working as Program Coordinator at The Blue Card in 2009, and was appointed Executive Director in 2013.
The Blue Card is unique in that it is the only organization whose sole mission is to help needy Holocaust survivors with direct financial assistance by way of emergency cash, monthly stipends, medical/dental, holiday and emergency response programs. This year marks the 82nd anniversary of The Blue Card, which was established in Germany in 1934.
Why is it important for us to remember and educate people about the Holocaust?
It is our mission to educate people about the needs of the tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors living in the world, and especially in the United States. As survivors age, the time-sensitive nature of this cause is brought into sharp focus. With each passing year, as the number of survivors decreases, their needs increase, and The Blue Card is here to ensure that their most basic needs—food, housing, medical– are met. These survivors are the last live testament to this tragic moment in history.
What are some of the misconceptions about the Holocaust?
Many people mistakenly believe that there are very few survivors remaining, when in fact, in the United States alone, there are approximately 100,000. Also, people are always shocked to learn that 1/3 of survivors live below the federal poverty level.
Is there any one person that no one has really heard of, but assisted survivors or was a survivor that stands out to you?
One person that really stands out to me is The Blue Card’s longtime client, Emily Kessler, who passed away at age 99 on Mother’s Day 2016. She had no chance to prepare in 1941, when Nazi officers came to her home in Khmilnyk, Ukraine and shot her parents and brother in front of her. And nothing could have prepared the young widow (her husband, a Soviet soldier, was killed during the Nazi invasion) to care for her 2-year-old son in a Ukrainian labor camp, to treat the open sores on her wrists and arms with nonexistent medical supplies, or to gather the strength for work — construction and toilet cleaning — with barely any food or water available.
Yet despite what seemed like insurmountable odds, Emily found the strength to carry on. Her survival, which she called a “miracle”, confounded her until the day she died.
“How did we manage there without food or water? I don’t know, for that, I try not to explain, because it’s difficult.”
Kessler eventually escaped the camp, bringing her son along, using false papers. She lived on the run for two years before relocating to Kyrgyzstan and eventually coming to the United States at the age of 60. But the damage was done. After the war, the “catastrophe” as she called it, Kessler was plagued by guilt and sadness. She lived in a constant state of mourning.
“I was very sad, not smiling. I thought, ‘I don’t have the right to smile’. It felt like a crime, like I was guilty of smiling.”
The mandolin, which Emily began playing at age 10 in her school band, symbolized a time of happiness for her, so after the war she avoided it entirely. However, 30 years ago she decided to start playing the Mandolin again and played it beautifully often accompanying herself with songs in Yiddish, Hebrew and Ukrainian.
At the 2014 Blue Card Annual Gala at Avery Fisher Hall, Emily performed for over 350 guests earning herself a standing ovation.
Very few were aware that Emily assisted other survivors in encouraging action and securing reparations. She also searched tirelessly for her rescuer in Ukraine so that she could express her gratitude.
I was surprised to learn that one third of Holocaust survivors live at, or below the poverty level, why is that?
Most are extremely surprised to learn this statistic. There are many reasons for this, one being that so many lost or were separated from their entire family thereby leaving them with no support network in place to assist with the many challenges that came with being a Holocaust survivor. Since survivors are in their late senior years, a large number have lost their spouses, and some have no children or their children live far away. A majority of Holocaust survivors suffer from serious physical and psychological scars, such as depression, isolation, PTSD, cancer, poor dental health, and cardiovascular disease. In addition to other costs, keeping up with medical bills is often impossible.
What are some biggest needs of the survivors?
The list is long, and probably the best way to sum it up is to provide information about Blue Card programs, which address the most important needs of survivors. They include:
Survivor Emergency Cash Assistance Program is partially funded by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Dental Program: named after Curt C. and Else Silberman, provides much-needed funding for dental care, especially crucial at the time of federal budget cuts.
Stipend Program: supports the most poverty stricken survivors with monthly checks.
Jewish Holiday Program: provides grants for the High Holidays, Hanukkah and Passover, giving survivors the financial means to have a happier holiday season.
The Summer Vacation Program: named after Adolph and Lotte Rosenberg, offers an expense-paid summer vacation program to needy survivors in the New York area. Survivors are provided with handicapped accessible accommodations, transportation, scheduled meals, and a well-planned itinerary for a break from city life, making the program structured, safe, and group-oriented.
The Emergency Response Program: named after Jakob Mogilnik, provides the alert system to Holocaust survivors who do not have the financial resources to pay for installation, service, and maintenance. The system is programmed to be in the survivor’s native language e.g. Yiddish, German, Russian, Hungarian, etc. In case of an emergency such as a fall, a simple press of a neck or wrist button activates an automated speakerphone. The operator answers in the survivor’s native language and immediately dispatches required assistance.
Mazel Tov Birthday Program: provides survivors with a check and a card on their birthday.
Vitamins Program: provides Holocaust survivors with multivitamins, minerals, supplements, protein drinks (diabetic and non-diabetic).
Bring-a-Smile Program: named after Sonia and Max Lonstein, offers special support for terminally ill Holocaust survivors. The program provides resources for survivors to realize a final experience or wish.
The “Fighting Cancer Together” Program: named after Siggi B. Wilzig, assists Holocaust survivors suffering from cancer with medical copays, transportation, nutrition and support group services.
The Blue Card-Lissner Hospital Visitation Program: offers volunteer visits to hospitalized Holocaust survivors who need guidance and emotional support.
The Nutritional Guidance Program: named after Rita Berkowitz, provides monthly food stipends and nutritional supplements. It also educates participants on proper nutrition.
Medical Supplies and Equipment Program: As survivors age, they become more dependent on wheelchairs, special mattresses, walkers, bed rails, colostomy bags, incontinence tissues, diabetic supplies, heating pads and adult diapers. The Blue Card ensures that these needs are taken care of, through our special medical supplies and equipment program.
What has your experience been like working with them?
Working with Holocaust survivors has been humbling. The challenges encountered by these brave individuals are inconceivable to most other people. As a by-product of victimization, many believe that they have failed once in not eluding capture, and a second time, in not being able to build a better life for themselves now. Most are terrified at the idea of institutionalization and many have no, or fractured families. Our job at The Blue Card is to ensure that they don’t have their dignity stripped from them once again, and that they receive the financial and emotional support required.
About how many Holocaust survivors currently live in the United States and about how many are currently receiving financial assistance from your organization?
There are approximately 100,000 Holocaust survivors living in the United States. We work with 2,400 Holocaust survivor households and it is our mission to raise awareness of and provide financial as well as other types of urgent assistance.
I’m sure you have many memorable clients, but is there one story that particularly affected you and changed your perspective about how you currently look at things?
Irene Hizme, a Holocaust survivor and dear friend of The Blue Card, is another person that I care deeply about. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, Irene Hizme and her twin brother Rene entered life in Nazi-occupied Europe and were inmates at the Theresienstadt ghetto by age five. At six years of age, they entered the Auschwitz concentration camp with their mother. Rene and Irene were one of the infamous Mengele Twins.
In January of 1945 they were liberated by the Russians. She began speaking about the Mengele Twins in 1985 when she realized that this was an undocumented tale. In her presentations, she stresses the need to speak out against all forms of injustice and prejudice.
After the war, Irene worked as a biochemist at Cornell Medical School and Albert Einstein School of Medicine, and later a senior computer programmer.
Irene is a passionate calligrapher. Her work largely reflects her early, catastrophic experiences as a Holocaust survivor during WWII. Her English and Hebrew calligraphy have been widely exhibited. Irene says, “Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 1987 and confined to a wheelchair, I could no longer hold the pen steady due to Ataxia. With the help of occupational therapists and special adaptive equipment I can pursue my calligraphy which fills me with joy and a sense of accomplishment.”
Irene designed the holiday and birthday cards we send out on behalf of The Blue Card – it is this perseverance and strength that inspires me to follow my goals and to reach my potential.
What is your most memorable moment at The Blue Card?
There are two that really stand out as exceptional. The first was presenting Professor Elie Wiesel, with The Blue Card’s Richard C. Holbrooke Award for Social Justice, together with Michael Douglas and Kati Marton. More than 500 guests attended this sold-out event at the New York Public Library. Elie Wiesel has served as an inspiration for me my entire life
The second most memorable moment was when I participated in and crossed the finish line in the 2016 5-Boro bike tour on behalf of The Blue Card. Remembering the survivors in forced death marches– without food, water or proper clothing—and the unspeakable horrors they endured, propelled me to me to finish the race.
What’s in store for the future?
Currently, the needs of Holocaust survivors are tremendously high, and this is anticipated for the next fifteen years. With this in mind, the main goal is to concentrate on ensuring that Holocaust survivors live out their twilight years with dignity and respect.
The biggest challenge faced at The Blue Card is ensuring that we raise enough funds in a timely manner, and that Holocaust survivors in need know The Blue Card is here to help. Because survivors are in their eighties, nineties and beyond, this makes the mission of The Blue Card incredibly time sensitive. Facing this challenge means constantly looking for efficient and creative ways to raise funds and awareness such as taking part in bike tours, marathons, triathlons, fundraising events, parlor meetings, lobbying in the public and private sectors and our bar/bat mitzvah program. Outreach is done on both a national and international level to Holocaust survivors and donors.
The Blue Card has several programs in place that educate younger people in an immersive and hands-on way. Through these programs we encourage young people to meet with survivors, learn about what they went through and provide them with emotional support. It is my hope that through these programs, their stories will live on with each generation. Another project that I am particularly proud of is that The Blue Card donated their archives to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. so they can live on and continue the legacy for the public.
How can people get involved and help The Blue Card’s mission?
The biggest challenge faced at The Blue Card is ensuring that we raise enough funds in a timely manner, and that Holocaust survivors in need know The Blue Card is here to help. Because survivors are in their eighties, nineties and beyond, this makes the mission of The Blue Card incredibly time sensitive. Facing this challenge means constantly looking for efficient and creative ways to raise funds and awareness such as taking part in the hospital visitation program, food package deliveries, bike tours, marathons, triathlons, fundraising events, parlor meetings, lobbying in the public and private sectors and our bar/bat mitzvah program.
The Blue Card has several programs in place that educate younger people in an immersive and hands-on way. Through these programs we encourage young people to meet with survivors, learn about what they went through and provide them with emotional support. It is my hope that through these programs, their stories will live on with each generation. For more information please go to our website.
Courtesy Images: The Blue Card