CATSKILL MOUNTAINS, New York — The survivors gathered around a table that stretched the length of the spacious, brightly lit conference room, chatting and braiding dough into aluminum pans. Outside, friends and relatives lounged in the bright summer sunlight at the entrance to the hotel, surrounded by the verdant hills of New York’s Catskills region.
The challah baking session was part of a program earlier this month for dozens of Holocaust survivors from New York City, giving them a week-long respite from their sweltering Brooklyn neighborhood.
The summertime retreat provided the participants, many of whom live alone on meager pensions, with a range of activities not otherwise available to them, with the aim of boosting their health, connecting with each other and giving them a good time.
“I used to be very active,” said Ervin Loewy, 81, “but now it’s very hard for me.”
“Whoever’s left, everybody has some kind of sickness or something,” he said. “So we’re helping each other out, and the nicest people are running the show.”
The annual, all-expenses paid retreat is an initiative by the Blue Card, a New York-based nonprofit that aids survivors. Most of the 40 participants were from the Orthodox community of Boro Park in Brooklyn, where they work with the neighborhood’s Nachas social services organization, which helped with the retreat.
The program has been running for over 10 years, but was canceled for the last two due to the pandemic, said Milana Hazan, the Blue Card’s associate executive director. This year’s retreat was the first time some of the participants vacationed outside the city since the outbreak of COVID.
“They look forward to it so much all year, and it was really difficult with COVID that they were forced to go into isolation,” said Hazan. “So that’s why this year it’s even more exciting.”
Many Brooklyn Jews also travel outside the city in the summer months, increasing the survivors’ isolation, and the trip gives them a chance to connect with each other.
Many of the participants have lost close family members and friends in their old age, and have limited mobility and financial resources. Of the 30,000 survivors in New York, around 40 percent live below the poverty line, according to the UJA Federation of New York. The Blue Card says 67% need assistance leaving their homes.
Loewy said he used to volunteer in a nursing home and a hospital, but now has problems with his feet and can only walk for about half a block at a time.
He survived the Budapest ghetto with his mother during the war, but his father and brother were killed.
“I was a very little boy when I lost my father. I had a brother who was three years older than me, he got killed,” he said. “They were looking for food with my aunt and the Germans got them and put them on a train to Auschwitz.”
He and his mother made their way to Brooklyn after the war, and he worked in New York as a diamond setter in the jewelry business.
Despite his limited mobility, he stays busy, going to synagogue in the mornings and chatting with friends on the phone during the day. He is good-humored, with an easy smile, and lives with his wife, another survivor who was also at the retreat. The couple has 45 great-grandchildren.
He knew some of the participants through the Boro Park community and through Nachas, but met most of them for the first time during the trip.
“They understand each other’s hardships and pain,” Hazan said of the retreat’s participants. “They’re almost like family now, they’re spending so much time together.”
The activities during the trip include painting, sports, meals and entertainment, including opportunities like swimming that are not easily available to the elderly participants in Brooklyn.
The retreat was held at the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa, a Jewish hotel complex near the town of Kerhonkson, a two-hour drive north of Manhattan.
The hotel’s owner, Yossi Zablocki, bought the hotel shortly before the start of the pandemic with the aim of bringing back “the Catskills of yesteryear.” The region’s so-called “Borscht Belt” was a legendary summertime vacation hub for New York Jews for decades, with hundreds of resorts and bungalow colonies, but that scene has mostly vanished. Zablocki, who was the last manager of the area’s Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club, the inspiration for the film “Dirty Dancing,” said his new resort is the last of its kind, with entertainment and activities for the guests, in addition to accommodations.
“If I just had a hotel where you come and go to sleep, no one’s going to come,” Zablocki said. “I’ve got aerobics, I’ve got challah baking. I’m running a cruise ship on land.”
“I’m providing the guests with something to do. I’m trying to revitalize that concept,” he said.
The participants were upbeat and cheerful during the trip, but said they rarely discussed their wartime experiences.
She grew up in Nachod, in today’s Czech Republic. She was shipped with her family to the Birkenau death camp. Her father, Yaakov, had already been killed, and her mother and two younger brothers were gassed immediately upon arrival. The last thing her mother told her was to lie to the Nazis about her age and say she was older. She told Josef Mengele she was 16, likely saving her life.
She was imprisoned with her older sister, who protected her. They lined up next to each other each day to be counted. Then one scorching day, Ungar sneaked off for a drink of water, despite warnings from her sister. When she returned, they had taken her sister away, and she never saw her again.
Later, a Nazi woman in a white coat, maybe a doctor, pulled her out of a group that was being sent to its death, and at another point, a guard locked her in a cellar for a day. When she emerged, she found out that all the other young people had been taken away. Other inmates and guards were “vicious,” she said; one Polish woman beat her with a stick, leaving a mark on her lungs that doctors noticed decades later.
“It’s beyond me,” she said of her survival. “God chose that it would be me.”
She made it to Israel after the war, still just a teenager, where she found her older brother who had also survived. She served as a shooting instructor in the Nahal Brigade and married in an army hall. She spent the rest of her adult life between New York and Israel and said she gave her kids a “normal childhood,” despite the trauma she’d experienced.
“I don’t bring down the whole world with me. That’s my nature,” she said.
She now lives alone in Brooklyn, and stays busy, but said she enjoyed being with the group at the retreat, some of whom she knew already. She spent time there walking to a lake on the property and going to the gym and pool.
“Every change is nice, and besides the change, the room is magnificent,” she said.
Hazan said she expected the trips to continue for years to come, despite survivors’ advanced age. The youngest trip participant was 77, born during the war, while another celebrated his 96th birthday during the retreat.
The week’s entertainment was not only challah baking and aerobics — the Jewish rapper Rami Even-Esh, who goes by the stage name Kosha Dillz, came up from the city to perform and spend time with the survivors.
Born in New Jersey to Israeli parents, Even-Esh often participates in Jewish, Holocaust and Israel-related events. He also has a large non-Jewish audience and performs on the long-running VH1 sketch comedy show Wild ‘N Out, hosted by Nick Cannon. (Cannon was criticized by Jewish leaders in 2020 for espousing antisemitic conspiracy theories on a podcast; he later apologized.)
Another of the show’s cast members, Israeli comedian Or Mashiah, who performs as Or Mash, flew in from Los Angeles to meet with the survivors.
Even-Esh said he uses his position, with one foot in the Jewish world and another in the mainstream, to boost Holocaust awareness.
“It’s draining for people to always tell their story of horror to new people so they know and connect, but if you think about it, a lot of times they’re telling the story to Jewish people, which have heard it on some level,” Even-Esh said. “I try to be the bridge from the public world. A lot of non-Jewish people follow my stuff.”
For example, he has partnered with the survivor Sami Steigmann, using the Clubhouse audio app to share Steigmann’s story, drawing tens of thousands of listeners. “That’s an alternative way of Holocaust education,” Even-Esh said.
He chatted with the survivors over lunch and challah preparation, hearing their stories and sharing some clips on social media. And, he said, “Why shouldn’t survivors get entertained?”
“They’re normal people. They want to have a laugh,” he said. As a rapper, he is known for his improv and humor. “There’s plenty of people that will listen to their story, but not plenty of people that are comfortable to do what I do, and that’s where I come in. That’s my special sauce.”
“The serious stuff, there are so many other Jews that can take that spot,” he said. “If it brings people joy it’s worth it.”
Dressed in baggy, distressed jeans and brightly colored Nikes, touting a portable speaker and microphone, he freestyled for the survivors over lunch, riffing on Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn and about eating soup, drawing laughs. Another song called “Schmoozin” was partly in Yiddish.
“It was funny. I’m not used to it. Nice kid,” one of the survivors said after the performance.
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