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Foundation boosts its aid to isolated Holocaust survivors in shadow of pandemic

Haifa-based Yad Ezer L’Haver has been providing food and assistance to survivors for 20 years, is now operating a call center that connects with 3,500 people every day

Holocaust survivor Motti Liber, 88, receives care from a volunteer on the premises of the Yad Ezer L'Haver foundation, which supports survivors of the Holocaust by providing them food as well as medical and psychological assistance, in Haifa on January 24, 2021. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
Holocaust survivor Motti Liber, 88, receives care from a volunteer on the premises of the Yad Ezer L'Haver foundation, which supports survivors of the Holocaust by providing them food as well as medical and psychological assistance, in Haifa on January 24, 2021. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

AFP — When the face of 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Naomie Lichthaus appeared on their screen, staff at the call center of Israel’s Yad Ezer L’Haver foundation were ready to respond.

The foundation, established by Shimon Shabag in the northern port city of Haifa in 2001, has been supporting survivors of the Nazis for two decades but its mission has expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 76 years since the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz, Holocaust survivors find themselves vulnerable to a virus that preys on the elderly and has forced many into painful isolation.

Before the pandemic, Yad Ezer ran a home for about 100 survivors while providing food as well as medical and psychological assistance to others who lived independently.

But in October, it expanded to include a round-the-clock call center with electronic monitoring, installing tablets in people’s homes to allow for rapid, direct communication.

“We call more than 3,500 people a day,” Shabag told AFP. “We talk to them. We show them that we are here and that we’re taking care of them.”

Holocaust survivor Naomie Lichthaus, 86, talks via video call with Shimon Shabag, sitting at the call center of the Yad Ezer L’Haver foundation, which supports survivors of the Holocaust by providing them food as well as medical and psychological assistance, in Haifa on January 24, 2021. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

There are an estimated 180,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel, according to official data.

Among them is Lichthaus, who was born in Chernivtsi, a city which falls in present-day Ukraine.

She said that when World War II broke out she was only six but would “never forget” the horror she experienced, including when men burst into her home and carried out a brutal anti-Semitic assault on her mother.

She lives alone now and says her calls with Yad Ezer offer comfort.

“They ask me if I need anything or if I want to talk,” she said, explaining that she recently asked for a mobility walker.

Shimon Shabag (R), founder of the Yad Ezer L’Haver foundation, which supports survivors of the Holocaust by providing them food as well as medical and psychological assistance, talks to a Holocaust survivor via video call from the foundation’s call center in Haifa on January 24, 2021. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

‘More secure’

After disconnecting with Lichthaus, foundation volunteer Mourad Marehi was headed to her home on a motorbike to deliver the walker.

“I feel more secure walking around now,” Lichthaus said after receiving the delivery, her weight supported by the device.

Shabag said that if someone doesn’t answer a call to their tablet, “we immediately send one of our bikers” to see what’s going on.

On multiple occasions, the foundation has found someone lying on the floor following a stroke, a heart attack or a fall, he explained.

Shabag told AFP that many survivors had been suffering from financial distress and other hardships like loneliness, independent of the pandemic.

Holocaust survivor Haya Caspi, 88, receives a food parcel from a volunteer on the premises of the Yad Ezer L’Haver foundation, which supports survivors of the Holocaust by providing them food as well as medical and psychological assistance, in Haifa on January 24, 2021. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

The traumas brought on by the virus, especially the fear of lacking the essentials needed to survive, had triggered painful war-era memories, he said.

The home run by Yad Ezer near the call center is on Haifa’s Kassel Street, but is known to locals as “survivors street.”

One resident is Holocaust survivor Haya Caspi, an 88-year-old of Romanian origin who lost her parents during the war.

“It’s hard because we’re alone, but… we are lucky because they take care of us,” she said.

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