This morning, I was picked up at my hotel in Odessa by Inna Vdovichenko of the JDC Odessa office. The JDC had planned a full day of activity for me on my final day in Ukraine.
After a visit to the Odessa Holocaust Memorial, Inna took me to Odessa's Holocaust museum, run with great caring by volunteer Director, Pavel Kozenko, and to Migdal-Shorashim, the Jewish Museum of Odessa, a small space that packs into it rich stories of Jewish families of Odessa.
Much of this helped to frame a greater understanding of Odessa during the Holocaust, with the city's Jewish population of 600,000 before an occupation by nazi and Romanian troops reduced to less than 90,000 after the city's liberation. Among those killed were tens of thousands shot in the public square or, in a horrific incident, locked into warehouses that were set on fire.
Understanding all of this tragic history provided valuable context, as many of those senior adults I would meet later in the day had lived through that occupation.
Following our museum visits, most of our day would be dedicated to a key area of JDC's work - its Hesed Department. Hesed's role, as in the common translation of the Hebrew word, is to provide acts of love and warmth, in JDC's case specifically aimed at those populations in the greatest need.
Our tour of Hesed in Odessa took us to three locations.
We started out in the Beit Grand JCC (which I will talk about again in a separate blog entry) where, among many other activities, JDC's Hesed Shaarey Tzion relief center is located.
I was introduced to Irina, the center's Program Director, and, following a brief orientation to the center's role and administrative structure, I had the privilege to see some of JDC's Hesed work within the Beit Grand JCC facility.
There I saw the Senior Adult Day Program, where older adults without great mobility are picked up by the JDC and brought to the JCC for daily programming. I found the participants engaged in a craft project specifically aimed at helping to maintain both their cognition and their manual dexterity. The seniors told me how much they loved the program. Among them was Alexandra, in her late 80's, a veteran who had helped liberate Berlin and had received 21 military awards. She said that the Hesed program was what today gave her the greatest enjoyment.
We went to the next room to find a new program called "A Step Ahead." Staffed entirely by volunteers, this new venture focuses on families with teen and young adult children with special needs. Inna explained that, as the Ukraine does not have laws regarding accessibility for people with disabilities, having such a program is invaluable, particularly for the parents of special needs children. Some of the participants enjoyed trying to speak to me in English, including Kostya, a young participant who told me he hobby was computers.
The Hesed Center also includes its own salon, and I met volunteer hairdresser Nelly, who told me that she donates her time because she understands how feeling good about how one looks is vital for self-esteem and quality of life. She plans to run a workshop soon to teach some of the clients how to better manage their own hair care.
And I was taken to see the culture club (no, Boy George wasn't there), a center for a variety of activities - from arts and craft to theatre to music to dance. Today there was practice going on for an upcoming Yiddish and Hebrew culture festival, with a Klezmer band on stage and a group of six senior adult Israeli dancers. After a short while watching, I was told I needed to play the bongo drums with the Klezmer band. Of course I did, only to be told after that I had to join the dance troop.
With the enjoyment that I received from drumming and dancing, I could truly appreciate the role that activities play at the Hesed Center for those who don't otherwise have opportunities for entertainment and socialization.
After catching my breath from trying to keep up with the remarkably energetic and joyful dancers, Inna and I headed out of Beit Grand for a home visit to a Hesed client, Konstantin. On the way there, I learned Konstantin's incredibly sad story.
Now seventy-six years old, he was born to a Jewish family in Odessa. At 3 months old, he developed a severe lung disease and was sent to a hospital. While in the hospital, his parents disappeared, and Konstantin spent his childhood living in orphanages.
After completing seven years of school, he began working as a mason, building furnaces. In 1964, he was married and his daughter was born two years later. In 1980, he divorced, and he never heard from his first wife or daughter again. He remarried in 1989, only to have his wife pass away in 2012 from a massive stroke.
Konstantin is totally alone, living in a small one-bedroom apartment and suffers from major health issues. His monthly pension is $59. The JDC provides him with food and medication assistance through a bank card program, and he receives four hours of home care per week.
It became quickly clear in speaking with Konstantin that support from the JDC is what helps keep him alive, and even that is not enough. Due to changes in criteria, Konstantin, who was once qualified with the Claims Conference as a nazi victim, meaning he was eligible for three times greater assistance, is no longer qualified as such. This is largely due to records from the orphanage, which are necessary for his qualification, having been destroyed in a fire. "I don't exist," Konstantin says.
With such a limited pension and JDC's reduced support, he has to make choices. In the winter, when his heating bill amounts to two-thirds of his pension, Konstantin doesn't buy all of his necessary medicines and eats less. Without a bath or shower in his home, he has to pay 75 hryvnia to go to the bath house, a luxury he does not feel he can afford during cold weather months.
Still he finds joy - in his dog, which he was given for a birthday present several years ago, in watching old war movies on television, and in celebrating Jewish holidays.
Interestingly, while he was beat up regularly by other children in the orphanage, he never new what being Jewish meant, as he had no family to teach him. While he never regretted being Jewish, it ironically wasn't until he began getting support from the JDC, which he only receives because he is Jewish, that he began to learn about Jewish holidays and traditions. Today, he loves Jewish cooking, with a special place in his palette for gefilte fish.
While Konstantin does not have enough, he expressed great gratitude to JDC for keeping him alive and for giving him an appreciation of his Jewish identity.
For our third stop on the Hesed front, we visited a JDC "Warm Home," a program set up to bring together small groups of mobile Hesed clients in a host's home. We arrived at the home of host Natalya to find a dozen JDC participants sitting at a long table, excited for the visit of their special guest (me). Unusual about this Warm Home group is that all the participants are also JDC Hesed program volunteers, giving of their time in ways ranging from home visits to leading culture club classes.
This was a spirited and fun group, who shared with me that volunteering helps them to feel needed and fills them up with so much contentment that they can take back to their homes, where most now live alone. They love few things greater than simply being together, and they expressed such gratitude for our support. One participant summed it up best - "When we come to Hesed, we are no longer seniors; we are boys and girls, forgetting about high blood pressure and headaches."
Indeed Hesed comes in all shapes and sizes... and ages. And from those living with special needs to those who lived through the nazi occupation (and some who sadly yearn to once again be classified as nazi victims), I saw firsthand the smiles and heard the stories of those for whom the JDC is making a world of difference in Odessa.