For Holocaust Survivors in the U.S., More than Remembrance Is Needed

Photo courtesy of Larisa Silnicky
Larisa Silnicky is a Holocaust survivor who now lives in Maryland.

Knowing how easily stories get lost and people forgotten, Larisa Silnicky decided years ago to write down her memories.

She started typing, and by the time she finished, she had filled about 100 pages with her words.

Some of those pages describe how she and her parents survived the Holocaust when other Jewish families in their Ukrainian city didn’t: “We left Odessa in July 1941, shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, when I was only four. My father worked for the railroad, and our family was allocated space in a freight car on a train that was to take us out of Ukraine. It was very scary. . . . On the track next to us there was a string of tank cars loaded with fuel, and on the other side a train loaded with mortars and other weapons. The Germans were bombing us from the air, and if they had hit one of those tank cars, we would have been incinerated.”

Some of those pages tell of how her love of shoes grew out of constantly looking for a decent pair: “In that first summer back in Odessa I went barefoot, and when school started I had no shoes at all. However, an inventive neighbor of ours made me a pair – the uppers from cloth, and the soles from clothesline rope – and in those shoes I attended my first year of school.”

But before those pages, on one at the beginning, appear eight words that explain why it was important to Silnicky to preserve that history: “To Hanna, so she will know her roots.”

“I wanted to leave something for my granddaughter,” Silnicky, who is 85, tells me on a recent afternoon as she hands me those pages in a spiral-bound book she paid to get printed.

Washington Post photo by Theresa Vargas
Larisa Silnicky in her home on April 17.

We are sitting at a table in her home in Rockville, Md., sharing a lunch she prepared of bagels, cream cheese, lox and egg salad. The day is one designated for Holocaust remembrance, and she is telling me about those years her family took refuge in a train car. Her grandparents chose not to join them and were killed. She doesn’t know exactly what happened to them, but she believes they were stripped of their clothes alongside other people in their community, sprayed with water and left to freeze.

It is important to remember the past, and holidays set aside for that purpose offer a nudge for us to take the time to do that. But it’s also important to recognize how a person’s past affects their current situation, so I went to Silnicky’s home that day to not only hear what she went through but to also learn what she and other Holocaust survivors are going through now. Many Holocaust survivors in the United States face the challenges of aging while also dealing with poverty, isolation and the need for services that take into consideration the trauma they have experienced.

Organizations that work with Holocaust survivors in the Washington region and across the country have described seeing the needs for support increase as that population has aged, and they are hoping the federal government will provide more funding to support services. The Jewish Federations of North America collected 111 signatures from members of Congress for a letter that calls for dedicating $10 million in funding for the Holocaust Survivor Assistance Program in a bill for the 2024 fiscal year. That would mark an increase from the current $8.5 million in funding.

The letter explains that there are about 60,000 Holocaust survivors residing in the United States, and about a third of them are living in poverty. The Holocaust Survivor Assistance Program, the letter says, has led to the implementation of more than 400 programs that have person-centered, trauma-informed approaches and has assisted other aging adults who have experienced trauma, including military veterans, refugees and survivors of childhood and domestic violence.

“As the nation ages, the need to prioritize a focus on trauma to the nation’s healthcare delivery system has never been more urgent,” the letter reads. “It is critical as a matter of public health that [person-centered, trauma-informed] approaches are advanced to understand and treat the long-term impact of trauma on older adults.”

Shelley Rood Wernick is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and the managing director of the Center on Holocaust Survivor Care and Institute on Aging and Trauma for the Jewish Federations of North America, which works with organizations across the country.

“We have heard stories of survivors living in deplorable conditions – living in a home that is unsafe with broken floors, living in a home that has expired food in the refrigerator because a Holocaust survivor might not be able to bear with parting with food,” Wernick said. For that reason, she said, it’s critical to connect survivors with case managers who can check on them and provide them with services that make them feel safe and empowered.

“Everyone deserves to live in comfort and dignity,” she said. “And Holocaust survivors are our teachers and our heroes. They have survived so much. They have given so much. We want them to know how much we appreciate them.”

On the day I visit Silnicky, her case manager Sophia Presman joins us. The two interact with ease and alternate between speaking Russian and English.

“She lives alone and she really doesn’t have a lot of friends,” says Presman, who works as a care manager for the Jewish Social Service Agency. “So, as a care manager, I’m constantly in contact and she knows she can call me anytime.”

The organization provides free services to hundreds of Holocaust survivors in the Washington region. Presman says Silnicky is in a better position than many of the people they serve because she worked for 22 years for Radio Liberty, but even so, the organization recognized she needed help. Presman says the staff was able to get her home-care assistance.

Presman, whose parents survived the Holocaust but lost many relatives in it, describes the services the organization offers as not just addressing practical needs but also psychological and emotional ones. “At almost the end of their life, they can be confident,” she says. “They can feel protected.”

“I can tell you it’s incredibly important for older people,” Silnicky says of the help the organization provides. “Old age is incredibly expensive. We couldn’t inherit anything. We couldn’t accumulate wealth. I have a pension. I have Social Security. As long as I’m okay, it’s enough. But if something happens?”

When she handed me that book, she asked me to promise to read it, and I did.

On the last page, she notes that she started recording those memories when her granddaughter was 5 and she finished when her granddaughter was 21. During that time, she writes, she lost her husband of nearly 60 years, Frantisek, whom she met in a college dorm room while looking for a student who could bring her a pair of shoes from another country.

She worried constantly, she writes, and her husband would always tell her, “We somehow made it. We will somehow make it.”