‘I Live on the Fourth Floor. I Haven’t Been Outside in Years’

Poverty and Loneliness amongst Holocaust Survivors
By Emma Eytan

On the second week of the month, Raffi, a volunteer with the Jaffa Institute’s Accompanying the Elderly program, knocks on Mali’s door. He is greeted by a warm smile and the comforting aroma of a fresh pot of coffee. On the table, two cookies are placed on a glass plate, framed by a floral doily on the table. Raffi recognizes the cookies – he delivered them with the food package he brought to Mali two weeks earlier, in his previous visit. Today, Mali is proud to share these cookies with her guest. Mali is a Holocaust survivor from Romania, living in an impoverished neighborhood in South Tel Aviv, Israel. She is one of thousands of survivors who live in poverty and chronic isolation in Israel, with limited access to, and knowledge of, welfare services that could improve her wellbeing.

To assist these survivors, volunteers from around the world gather at the Jaffa Institute’s Food Distribution Center each month to pack over 300 food packages for elderly individuals, primarily Holocaust survivors, experiencing poverty, limited mobility, and loneliness.

Since the food delivery earlier in the month, Mali has been alone. Her wheelchair at the side of the door defines her life these days. In the morning, she makes her way to the kitchen, then to the television, and the hours roll on. Through her big windows, she sees children playing, fruit vendors bustling with happy customers, and public busses whizzing by. Now a distant memory, Mali remembers a time when she enjoyed the outside world, like the people she now longingly watches. Today, Mali is bound to her wheelchair, confined to her dilapidated fourth-floor walk-up apartment. She has not been outside in five years.

Raffi has a family of his own; he is married with two young children. In his mid-thirties, and at the height of his career, Raffi looks forward to his time with Mali in the same way he looks forward to seeing his family at the end of the day. They have created a bond that is deep, meaningful, and mutually rewarding. Aside from the practical assistance Raffi offers Mali, they provide one another with enriching stories, thoughts, and advice. To him, she is not a Holocaust survivor; she is, uniquely, Mali. Their bond is unbreakable.

After the liberation of the concentration camps, Mali made Aliyah to Israel, where she began a new life as a survivor. Neither distance nor emotional trauma stopped Mali from coming to Israel. She struggled to gain economic independence, plagued by physical ailments from her time in the camps. Despite her relentless efforts to build a better life in Israel, she is now widowed, homebound, in limited contact with her children, and economically stunted by her disability and inability to afford a home with elevator access.

In 2015, the Jaffa Institute launched Accompanying the Elderly in partnership with the Horowitz Foundation, which continues to generously support this critical program. In addition to food packages, the program provides 300 impoverished elderly individuals, primarily Holocaust survivors, with home visits from a dedicated volunteer as well as social workers. These visits ensure that participants receive the nourishment, positive social connections, and practical assistance necessary to live in health and dignity. Volunteers take the time to chat, share stories, and engage in meaningful conversation. They also assist the elderly in accessing social services by making phone calls, completing online forms, and delivering important documents on their behalf.

Years ago, Mali, along with many impoverished Holocaust survivors, entered apartments with rent-controlled contracts. While Mali’s apartment isolates her from the outside world, leaving her apartment would mean joining the mainstream housing market, in which a typical one-bedroom apartment costs $1,200, far more than her current rent. As a result, aside from the volunteer visits, Mali is alone every day of the week, surrounded by four walls and a two-dimensional television screen.

Mali’s distressing situation is not unusual. Of the 160,000 Holocaust survivors who live in Israel, 33% live under the poverty line and many report chronic loneliness and depression. In total, 34% of Holocaust survivors in our program report loneliness, compared to 16% reported by the general population in Israel, according to annual evaluations of Accompanying the Elderly conducted by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute. Indeed, while the majority of Holocaust survivors express interest in community and social gathering, only one-fifth of the participants in Accompanying the Elderly are able to socialize outside of their home, due to their health conditions and restrictions.

Programs assisting vulnerable, isolated, elderly people are critical to ending the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Through social connection, advocacy for welfare rights, and nutritional security, the humane and dignified treatment of elderly people sets a moral standard for the empowerment of disadvantaged communities.

Caring for the elderly creates a positive ripple effect for their families. When these individual’s children are free from the financial responsibility of caring for their parents, they can use their available resources to support their own children. The next generations are then more financially and emotionally prepared to dedicate themselves to work and education, achieving upward mobility, and ending the cycle of intergenerational poverty. With great will, dedication, and vision, anything is possible. The support of volunteers and donors from around the world allows us to serve this wise and important generation. As Mali best puts it: “When you don’t succeed, you must move the walls. That’s how I made it all these years.”

Emma Eytan is a Grants and Development Coordinator at the Jaffa Institute – a nonprofit organization that assists severely disadvantaged children and their families to break out of the cycle of intergenerational poverty in Israel.