Reliving the Holocaust

“They’re going to come with the dogs. They’re going to start beating me.” Pola Lipnowski spoke in Yiddish, an expression of sheer terror on her face. She turned to her daughter, Hendel Schwartz, for protection. 

But Lipnowski was not in Poland. She was in her room at Emmy Monash Aged Care, a residential facility in Melbourne, Australia. “You’re safe. I’m here,” Schwartz reassured her.

Still, in her mind, Lipnowski, who was born June 1, 1920, was back in Jedrzejow, Poland, where her family — her husband and son, her parents and her seven siblings and their families — were relocated to the ghetto in spring 1940. “They’re going to start taking people away. They took away my parents,” she told Schwartz.

This time it was her dementia and not the Nazis that imprisoned her, returning her to the Jedrzejow ghetto where she was forced to cook and launder for the German soldiers, to a labor camp in Czestochowa where she operated machinery and incurred a cut that traversed the length of her left arm, and to a death march to Auschwitz, where, ill with typhus, she was liberated by the Russian army on Jan. 27, 1945. Lipnowski was the only member of her family to survive.

Schwartz, who lives in Los Angeles, had asked her mother to move to California years earlier, before the dementia set in. But Lipnowski was adamant about remaining in Melbourne with her tight-knit Jewish community, most of whom were Yiddish-speaking survivors from Poland. In 2005, she moved to Emmy Monash, and in 2009 she was transferred to the dementia unit. Schwartz spent weeks at a time with her, staying by her side from morning to evening, speaking to her in her native Yiddish and trying to comfort her as her dementia destroyed her short-term memory and reawakened traumas suffered in the Holocaust. 

Andy Meisels with his wife, Vera, in 2010. Photo courtesy of Vera Meisels

Schwartz also noticed other behaviors she attributed to her mother’s war experiences. Lipnowski hid bread and an occasional banana. She wanted to save any food left over from her meals. And when Schwartz tried to take her for a walk outside the building, Lipnowski stopped at the door and demanded, “Take me back.”

Then, in 2011, Lipnowski’s memories turned to an earlier period in her childhood — she talked about the family bakery and her sister — and her nightmares ended. Eventually she stopped eating and died on June 27, 2012. 

“I lived with this for so many years, but nobody talked about it,” said Schwartz, adding that the staff at Emmy Monash “were aware and not aware.” Because Schwartz grew up in a community where her generation had no grandparents, they also had no knowledge of old people.” “I had to learn my way through it,” she said.

Historically, the distinct effects of dementia on Holocaust survivors were not recognized until long after World War II ended. For one, those who survived the horrors of the Nazis tended to be younger and did not fall prey to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia until decades later. Also, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Alzheimer’s was even identified as a disease and not part of the normal aging process. 

But, for survivors, growing old is not necessarily a normal experience, as life events can awaken Holocaust memories, according to Shoshana Yaakobi, a senior social worker and Holocaust Resource Program coordinator at Baycrest, a health sciences center focused on the aging in Toronto. For example, older survivors spend more time visiting doctors, and in the camps, doctors weren’t to be trusted. When they get sick, which was a death sentence under the Nazis, or suffer the death of a spouse, the experiences bring back all the losses they endured during the Holocaust. 

In 2003, Baycrest published “Caring for Aging Holocaust Survivors,” a manual that for the first time presented comprehensive information and strategies for caring for this specific and often challenging population.

In the 10 years since the manual was published, the behaviors of the survivors have not changed, according to Yaakobi, but health professionals have learned more, especially in understanding what can trigger certain behaviors. 

Genia Burman at the Los Angeles Jewish Home in 2007.  Photo by Steve Cohn, courtesy of the Los Angeles Jewish Home

“There are triggers you can anticipate — things like loud voices, sounds of steps like boots, dogs barking, certain smells, like disinfectants,” Yaakobi said. Other triggers are less obvious. One survivor told her that the sound of a train always evokes memories of the train that took her to Auschwitz. Another survivor with severe dementia pointed to a standing pole used for IV drip bags and said, “Don’t you see the cross? They’re going to kill us.” 

In addition to suffering dementia, older survivors are generally particularly frail. And they are prone to conditions such as osteoporosis, impaired vision and cardiac issues resulting from experiencing prolonged malnutrition and other traumas in the camps.

For Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles, this translates to an increased need for home care, which includes help with cleaning, cooking, laundry, bathing, grocery shopping, medical appointments and errands.  

JFS currently assists approximately 2,000 of the estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles County, according Susie Forer-Dehrey, JFS chief operating officer. (This number, which has not changed in more than 10 years, is questioned by Pini Herman, a principal at Phillips & Herman Demographic Research, who estimates the total number of survivors as closer to 4,200, excluding child survivors.) 

JFS funds its services to survivors through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund, and the Abner D. and Roslyn Goldstine Fund for Holocaust Survivor Services. The agency also expects to provide additional help through the Fund for Holocaust Survivors in Urgent Need, a grass-roots effort recently initiated by The “1939” Club.

“We find that the survivor clients want to stay in their homes and in the community as long as possible,” Forer-Dehrey said. 

This is certainly true for Andreas (Andy) Meisels.

“Please leave me alone. Stop hitting me. I didn’t see anybody.” Andy Meisels, 85, is in the early stages of dementia. But in his nightmare, he is back in the former Warsaw Ghetto.

In June 1944, Meisels was transported from Auschwitz to a work detail in the Warsaw Ghetto, which had been liquidated and destroyed. His job was to gather bricks from the demolished buildings and cart them away. At one point, several prisoners in his detail wandered away, leaving Meisels alone. A kapo, or supervisory prisoner, appeared and demanded the names of those missing. Meisels claimed he did not know. The kapo hit him several times with the wooden handle of a hoe, threatening to break the handle over his back. Meisels remained silent.

Born on July 19, 1927, in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia, Meisels was the youngest of six children and one of only two family members, along with his brother Erno, to survive.

Today, Meisels is a retired computer engineer and technical writer who speaks nine languages, six of them fluently. With his dementia, however, he forgets what day of the week it is, although he can tell you that Germany occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, which was a Sunday. 

But dementia is only one of the challenges Meisels faces, according to his wife, Vera. He also suffers internal bleeding, as well as other health problems. 

Meisels is a client of Bet Tzedek Legal Services though its Holocaust reparations program. The family is also working with Nicholas Levenhagen, an Equal Justice Works fellow, a position sponsored by Greenberg Traurig LLP, and the first full-time attorney at Bet Tzedek dedicated solely to providing elder law and end-of-life services to Holocaust survivors.

For survivors with dementia, Levenhagen helps families figure out how to pay for increasing care needs through various state and private programs. Also, if necessary, he helps them with powers of attorney, health care directives and statutory wills before the dementia becomes debilitating.

Levenhagen recently referred Meisels to Jewish Family Service. Vera, who is his primary caregiver, said she will accept help when she needs it. 

“He’s deteriorating,” she said. “But I will never, ever put him in a home. I love him. I cannot express how much I love him.” 

For others, however, a residential facility is often the best option.

Genia Burman was recently sitting in the garden of the Jewish Home’s Eisenberg Village Campus in Reseda. “This area was a DP camp,” Burman told her daughter Barbara Bloom. “And before that, it was a Nazi camp.” 

Burman, 92, has talked about the war and her family of origin, all of whom perished, for as long as Bloom can recall. “But she now has dementia and only remembers the tragedies,” Bloom said. 

Bloom had wanted her mother to move to Flagstaff, Ariz., where she lives, but Burman insisted on staying in Los Angeles. She moved to the Jewish Home in 2004 and remarried in 2005. But after her husband died in March 2011, she started becoming forgetful. Eventually Burman, who also suffers from congestive heart failure and macular degeneration, was moved to the Goldenberg-Ziman Special Care Center for residents with dementia, where Bloom frequently visits her.

According to Susan Leitch, community manager of the Factor Nursing Building and Goldenberg-Ziman, seven of the approximately 60 Holocaust survivors at the Jewish Home suffer from dementia. 

Burman, the youngest of five siblings in an extraordinarily poor family, was born Dec. 2, 1920, in Turka, Ukraine. At 17, she moved to Lvov and later Olesko, Poland. Then, in June 1941, when Germany invaded Russia, Burman escaped to the east, arriving in Uzbekistan in November 1941. She worked on collective farms, contracting malaria and often going hungry.

Burman has made several attempts to leave the Goldenberg-Ziman building, ostensibly to find her family. “Maybe I should have stayed with them. I could have helped,” she said.

“Genia is all about saving food and saving people,” Bloom said. She saw people starving and also is haunted by her imaginings of the fates of her sister and brother and their families. Bloom believes they likely starved to death in the Lvov ghetto.

Distractions can take Burman away from the war, and Bloom often drives her to a park in Reseda. “She spends an hour or two feeding the birds. She loves that,” Bloom said.

With the passing years, the number of Holocaust survivors continues to decrease. According to Hillary Kessler-Godin, director of communications for the Claims Conference, only about 500,000 survivors remain alive worldwide, including survivors from the former Soviet Union who fled eastward or endured the Siege of Leningrad. 

But with nearly half of all people aged 85 and older suffering from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia to some degree, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of people now vividly reliving their Holocaust horrors is substantial.

“It’s unimaginable what these people had to go through,” Hendel Schwartz said. “And to have to repeat the process is so unfair,
so hard.”