The Kindness of Strangers

Born in Lithuania in 1940, Maia Ilina was smuggled out of the ghetto in Kaunas shortly before it was liquidated in 1944. She spent the rest of World War II in hiding with a Lithuanian family; all her known relatives perished. After the war ended, she was taken to a Jewish orphanage.

Now nearly 72 years old, Maia once again needs the kindness of strangers. Thanks to Jewish Family and Child Service and funds from a Claims Conference grant to aid Holocaust survivors, Maia has weekly visits from Nadia Rizhuk, one of JFCS’s 19 homemaker assistants. Nadia helps with shopping, cooking, cleaning and perhaps, most important, companionship. Since Maia doesn’t drive, Nadia takes her to doctor’s appointments and to the grocery store.

“She is now part of our small family,” says Maia, who arrived in Portland from St. Petersburg 16 years ago with her husband Boris. “She is kind and friendly and hardworking. She is a good person.”

Maia says Nadia makes her life easier both emotionally and physically.

“I can manage mostly,” says Maia. “But when I think about my future … it is hope and warm feelings that I am not alone if something happens.”

For Maia and many Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, JFCS VIP homemaker services are covered by a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. For 2012, JFCS has three grants from the Claims Conference – $25,000 for emergency assistance for survivors, $38,000 for socialization (JFCS fundraising must match 22% of that to qualify), and $339,000 for homemaker assistants.

While that sounds like a lot of money, JFCS Executive Director Marian Fenimore says that the restrictions on who can be served with those funds leave many of their clients out in the cold. To qualify for services, clients must be “certified survivors.” Fenimore says the process of recounting their stories is so upsetting that some survivors don’t want to be traumatized again. Others don’t have documentation needed to “certify” their claims.

Of course JFCS also serves many low-income seniors who are not survivors.

“We are doing a senior and Holocaust survivor campaign to help raise money to help us serve a broader spectrum,” Fenimore says.

Currently the VIP program provides homemaker services to 75-80 clients, about 35 of whom are survivors. Of the 19 homemaker assistants, 10 speak Russian, which is very important due to the large number of aging refugees who arrived here in the 1990s from the FSU. JFCS bilingual case manager Rita Shmulevsky says people often are surprised to find out how many Holocaust survivors are from the FSU. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Soviet records and memorials typically referred to civilian rather than Jewish victims.

Rita says she grew up with stories of the Holocaust. “I thought I’d heard everything, but every time I speak to clients to write their story to qualify for the grant, it leaves me in shock.”

Nadia, herself a refugee from Moldovia, says she enjoys the three families she helps each week.

“I really like the people, especially Maia,” says Nadia. “She had a hard life and still all the time is positive. I like our conversations and I learn a lot from Maia.”

To ensure that other survivors and seniors can gain the sense of security the VIP Senior Homemaker program provides, send donations with a memo “for senior and Holocaust survivors program” to JFCS, 1221 SW Yamhill, Suite 301, Portland, OR 97205.

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