Vital meal deliveries help Holocaust survivors amid coronavirus crisis

Assistance group now relying on volunteers to continue serving clients who are unable to leave their homes because of high risk of infection

Holocaust survivor Hannah Nudel talks to volunteer Freida Rothman, who is delivering meals to survivors isolated in their homes because of coronavirus concerns, in Brooklyn, New York, on March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)
Holocaust survivor Hannah Nudel talks to volunteer Freida Rothman, who is delivering meals to survivors isolated in their homes because of coronavirus concerns, in Brooklyn, New York, on March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

NEW YORK (AP) — Brooklyn caterer Israel Frischman is continuing to prepare dozens of meals for elderly Holocaust survivors even though the Jewish community center that provides them owes him money.

The Nachas Health and Family Network in Brooklyn has been forced to suspend its counseling services, exercise classes and Torah lessons due to the coronavirus outbreak. But it is relying on the kindness of Frischman and volunteers to continue delivering vital kosher meals to survivors, many of whom live in poverty, and are in their 80s and 90s and at a high-risk of the contagion.

Frischman and volunteer Freida Rothman are united by their roots and their cause. Their grandparents survived the Holocaust, and they say it is their duty to help others who suffered unspeakable horrors in concentration camps and who are now isolated at home, fearing the impact of the fast-spreading virus.

“People have to do what they have to do. They have to be kind,” Frischman said via videoconferencing. “Sometimes it doesn’t suit our pockets the right way, but it’s not about what goes into our pocket. … We have to make sure that people have what they need to continue to survive.”

Freida Rothman drops off a meal for a Holocaust survivor in Brooklyn, New York, March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/ Jessie Wardarski)

The coronavirus has infected more than 350,000 people worldwide and killed more than 16,000. The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems. More than 100,000 people have recovered from the illness.

“This is going to go down in history, and you’re going to think back: ‘What did I do to make a difference? How did I make other peoples’ lives easier and better?’” Rothman said, before she delivered meals in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood.

“My grandmothers are the most empowered women I know — both survivors of Auschwitz. So, for me, my first reaction was: ‘What are we doing for the elderly? What are we doing for the survivors, who are not only important to me, but to the whole community, and really, to the whole world,’” Rothman said.

Before the virus outbreak, about 40 survivors would come daily to Nachas (Yiddish for “joy”) to receive legal assistance, study Torah, exercise, get counseling — and to eat. All activities were suspended as New York state asked residents to stay at home unless they have vital reasons to go out.

“We’ve all heard the news and we know what’s going on, and that the elderly should not be out on the streets and running around,” Frischman said. “But we make sure that these people get their food, regardless.”

Many Holocaust survivors in the US live in poverty and rely on donations because they struggle to pay their rent and even buy food.

Holocaust survivor Alice Rosenberg speaks to meal delivery volunteer Freida Rothman from her balcony in Brooklyn, New York, on March 19, 2020. Many of the borough’s Holocaust survivors, who are isolated in their homes because of coronavirus fears, are relying on meal deliveries from Jewish community organizations. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

Frischman delivers 30 to 35 kosher meals three times a week to Nachas. The menu includes options, like tilapia or flounder with vegetables, chicken with potato souffle, and baked ziti or eggplant parmesan. The women love the food and used to eat at the center before the crisis and always took a packed meal home.

These days, though, they have relied on volunteers to deliver them, including Rothman, a jewelry designer, who last year organized a “Women of Strength” gathering for dozens of Holocaust survivors, and who now tells their story of courage in her Instagram account.

On a recent day, she arrived at the home of survivor Hannah Nudel, wearing latex gloves and a turquoise face mask. After delivering a warm meal on her doorstep, Rothman and Nudel chatted from a safe distance.

“Hannah, is there anything else you need? Anything? We’ll bring it for you,” Rothman said from the hall.

From her floral-wallpapered kitchen, Nudel paused and said with a sigh: “I need a refuah shlemah” — Hebrew for a “complete recovery.”

“You need a refuah shlemah?” Rothman asked, then added: “Refuah shlemah to you!”

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