Last week, everyone was scurrying around Zane Buzby’s small but serviceable office, high up in a rather creaky building in downtown Los Angeles. Right inside the door, one person packed tubes of arthritis creams, soaps, magnifying glasses and Star of David necklaces. Someone else carefully counted cash into envelopes. And yet another entered data into a computer.
Buzby, meanwhile, pulled out books from her vast archive to show me pictures of who this stuff will go to on her trip next month to Latvia and Lithuania, where she will personally hand out money, as well as a few small gifts, to more than 150 Holocaust survivors living in abject poverty. She’ll also bring goods for another 50 people in Belarus she won’t visit this time, but to whom her guide will deliver.
Since 2001, Buzby has been traveling at least once a year to Eastern Europe on a mission that has come to consume her life. Along the way, she co-founded, with Chic Wolk, the nonprofit Survivor Mitzvah Project, dedicated to providing direct aid to people who got through the horrors of the Shoah only to struggle throughout their lives, and who now find themselves living on pensions insufficient to take care of their basic needs. These are people who do not fit the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany’s strict definitions of survivors, so they can’t get reparations money. But they are, nevertheless, Jews who suffered greatly under the Nazi occupation of their homes in Hungary, Belarus and other parts of the former Soviet Union. So when Buzby came across some of these survivors a decade ago, on a trip to visit her family’s ancestral cemetery, she began to give everything she could — from her own pocket.
Buzby was the subject of a Jewish Journal cover story four years ago, and I’ve been fascinated by her level of devotion to doing all that she can ever since. Given that this is our annual Giving issue, I sought her out to catch up on how her work is going. We met for lunch and she told me that on her trip, starting Dec. 25, she’ll visit as many survivors as she can in three weeks, traveling with a guide and a documentary filmmaker with whom she’s planning to create a movie. She was clearly frantic but extremely funny throughout our conversation — her passion for a very serious cause is softened by echoes of the comic writing, producing and acting that is her professional calling.
The enormity of her rescue effort is a bit daunting. “I started with eight, and that I could handle,” she said. “I could even handle 80. Now, it’s 1,500 people.” She writes personalized letters to each one she works with — starting with a form letter that describes her life, but adding a personal note to each. She tries to give as many of the 1,500 survivors as she can about $1,200 to $1,800 a year to supplement their incomes.
She started it all by handing out her own money, but now she’s got some donors, big and small, to help. It’s not enough, though: “Last year we raised the most ever, $334,000,” she said. “Still, it’s not enough to do everybody.”
Repeatedly, she talks about the joyfulness of the survivors, how, despite their living conditions, they are always grateful not only for her gifts, but what they have. “A goodly portion of these people have every reason to hate everyone,” Buzby said, “but they are the kindest, most hopeful people I’ve ever met. They never, ever talk about material things.”
Some have no plumbing, she said. Their response: “I’m not naked!”
One of their favorite gifts is the Jewish star necklace, because they’ve never had anything like it. Their Jewish identity remains strong, despite the fact that many have spent much of their lives under communist rule, unable to practice, or even reveal, their religion.
A book the project published collecting reproductions of the survivors’ personal letters tells some of their stories. “Before the war our parents were young, took an active part in social life, but we didn’t celebrate religious holidays,” a letter from two women, identified as Nina and Anna from Grodno, Belarus, wrote in 2005. “But I remember how our grandfather put on his striped tallis and prayed; how he treated us grandchildren with challah and I also remember the Pesach matzoh, not square as it is now, but in big rounds.”
Many of these people are in their 90s; the youngest is 72, Buzby said. They often have no family anywhere, because they lost them all in the Holocaust.
“I always feel like this is our last chance,” she told me about her upcoming trip. “Since I was there the last time, seven people have died.”
It’s a labor of love for one who used to spend her time on sets, not on overnight trains without plumbing or in hotels where the shower spits out dirt. Traveling to these countries isn’t easy, but Buzby regales with stories of her adventures.
What she needs now, though, is more money. “We are in the 11th hour with these people,” she said, “we can’t wait five years.” Her immediate goal is to raise $1.6 million a year. “If we could get that, we wouldn’t have to scramble every day. That would take care of the 1,500 we handle.” Then she added, “there are also thousands more out there to be discovered.”
Even a donated necklace can make a difference. “You can dramatically change someone’s life by a simple act of kindness,” Buzby said. An old Chanukah menorah. A letter. A $34 magnifying glass can allow someone to see. “So they know they haven’t been forgotten.”
As we finished talking, Buzby said one simple sentence that continues to haunt:
“I just want to give a different ending to the story of the Holocaust.”