Russia’s Elderly

In Samara, a city of 1.2 million in the Volgaregion of Russia, 87-year-old Anna sits in a 100-square-foot spacethat is her reality. One of perhaps 8,000 elderly Jews in town, shespends her lonely days confined to her room, blind and her legs tooweak to support her. A sagging bed takes up most of her room, whichis one of five apartments that constitute the communal apartment inwhich she exists. The other residents share one toilet and a dirtykitchen.

Anna, the daughter of the last rabbi of Samara,lost her only son during the Second World War and, more recently, herhusband to an automobile accident. She moved into a communal flatbecause she could not afford better.

Anna relies on Ana Spalin, who is the director ofthe local Chesed, the Jewish welfare agency. The efforts of the JointDistribution Committee ensure that Ana and a core of elderlyvolunteers visit Anna and hundreds of her counterparts twice weekly.That means entering the squalor of Anna’s sad reality — walkingacross a dingy courtyard and edging over a piece of wood that spansan open sewer as they approach her room. This is not atypical.

In visits to dozens of apartments, I encountereddozens of Annas, each one an individual and a Jew.

How does one describe a situation that is almostan epidemic of poverty? What can we say about a society that, fordecades, promised its suffering citizens a modicum of comfort intheir later years, only to see that minimal comfort evaporate associety goes through another revolution? This is what has happened inRussia and the other vestiges of the Soviet Union. The demise ofcommunism has occasioned unprecedented Jewish immigration. It hasresulted in an explosion of capitalism and opportunity for a growingmiddle class. And, regrettably, it has created an underclass ofperhaps the most vulnerable members of society, the elderly,estimated to number 500,000.

How does an elderly man or woman, living on afixed income, survive when hyper-inflation makes that incomeworthless? This is the question we must ponder when considering theJews of the former Soviet Union.

Living in shabby, sometimes miniscule apartmentsthroughout Russia are Jewish men and women who will most surelyperish if we don’t help them to live and, more importantly, to live with dignity.

My recent visit to Russia to consult with theAmerican Joint Distribution Committee was, on many levels, excitingand encouraging. But when contemplating the hell of old age there, itwas sobering and depressing. A few facts will illustrate:

* Thirty-eight of every 100 Russian Jews are olderthan 60 years of age.

* The Russian Jewish population is proportionatelyaging more rapidly than any other in the world.

* The monthly pension on which a Jewish senioradult struggles can be as low as $15 a month.

* Even a Russian Jew who is a decorated warveteran cannot count on more than $65 a month.

* If a senior adult breaks a hip in Russia today,chances for survival are almost nil.

* There is practically no public health care forthe elderly in Russia today. What exists is so substandard that touse it is almost tantamount to a death warrant.

* Most senior adults exist on a kilo of breadconsumed every few days.

* Thousands of Jewish aged live in what can onlybe described as a slum without adequate toilet or kitchenfacilities.

* Those who can live without adequate food aresurviving in abject isolation in a country where there are sevenmonths of dangerous winter.

It is the food packages, the prosthetic devicesand the connection to the outside world that 75 local Jewish welfareorganizations are offering to the elderly. They are part of what iscalled the “Chassidim,” not Chassidim in the religious sense but inthe sense of communal instruments of compassion. Today, they are thelifeline to Anna in Samara and to the 70,000 other souls reached bythem. We can be extremely proud that our support of the JointDistribution Committee, the “Joint,” through the United Jewish Fundis making much of this possible. At the same time, we should considerwhat it will mean if we can’t reach the next 70,000 in need, waitingfor that bag of rice, chocolate bar or friendly voice.

Leaving the dilapidated building where an87-year-old former pediatrician is living alone, my companion, who iscoordinating Jewish home-care service to the 5,000 elderly in thattown, looks particularly shaken. With an intensity in his eyes, hesays to me, “That man saved thousands of children during his career;shouldn’t he live with some dignity?”

John R. Fishel is the executive vice presidentof the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.