A visit to her grandparents’ hometown set Zane Buzby on a new path.
In 2001, the actress and director decided to take a “roots trip” and visit the shtetl in Belarus where her grandparents had lived. What she found had a profound effect on her. “There was no family to greet me,” she told the Journal in a phone interview. “There were no traces of Jewish life. Just ruined, desecrated cemeteries and burnt buildings.” Even more disturbing was the poverty she encountered. Elderly Jews living alone in small, dilapidated huts, unable to afford even the barest necessities. They had lived through World War II in the Baltics, Soviet Union or Asia. Their villages had been pillaged, their families and friends marched into the forest, shot and dumped into mass graves, ignored by the Claims Commission and other Holocaust charities. Their stories had gone unrecorded.
Returning to Los Angeles, Buzby was determined to do something about this. She teamed up with philanthropist Chic Wolk and Yiddish scholar Professor Dovid Katz to form the nonprofit Survivor Mitzvah Project (SMP). The SMP set out to not only provide financial aid to these survivors, but to record and archive their testimonies of what Buzby called “The Other Holocaust.”
When we think of the Holocaust, she said, “we think of concentration camps, ghettos, and cattle cars. But 2.7 million Jewish men, women, children and infants were not murdered in concentration camps. They were burned alive, buried alive, killed in gas vans, starved, drowned, hung, massacred … and this is not taught in the schools, is not part of the organized commemoration days, is not featured in most museums and is not at all in our collective memory.”
To date, SMP has aided and recorded the testimonies of more than 2,400 survivors. Buzby tries to get to Eastern Europe at least once a year, visiting survivors to distribute money, medicines and other aid, and expand the archive. Many of them live in towns so far off the beaten track, Buzby said they look like the 20th century has not arrived, much less the 21st. Cars are unheard of and horse-drawn vehicles navigate the rough, unpaved roads.
“Every generation has their moment when they’re asked what do they stand for, and who do they stand with? Lives hang in the balance and we can change these lives with a simple act of kindness.” — Zane Buzby
“Every town has its painful stories of endless courage, monumental suffering and acts of resistance and the fight for survival,” Buzby said. Their stories have never been told, Buzby said, because nobody asked them. “They’re so appreciative that we’ve found them; appreciative that these strangers a world away have sent money. It’s just such a pleasure to be the ambassador of goodwill.”
Describing the work as “a call to action,” Buzby said, “We get thousands of letters every year, and so many read, ‘When I found your money, I thought things like this only happened in fairy tales.’ ‘Thank you for your help. Before you, we couldn’t even buy an apple.’”
Buzby estimates it takes about $150 a month to provide each survivor food, medicine, heat and shelter. “The price of a Starbucks coffee will change someone’s life forever,” she said.
It’s work that’s become the center of her life. “I can’t take my foot off the accelerator,” she said. The SMP now has volunteers on the ground in Eastern Europe who help with distributing the aid, and ferreting out other survivors. Buzby is developing a feature-length documentary of the 500 hours of interviews she’s accumulated.
“Every generation has their moment when they’re asked what do they stand for, and who do they stand with?” she said. “Lives hang in the balance and we can change these lives with a simple act of kindness. These are the last survivors of the Holocaust, and they’re counting on us. There’s no magic pill, no big Jewish organization is going to read this and go, ‘Oh, let us help.’ This is done person-to-person. You want to save a life? You can do it. It’s really easy.”
More information on the Survivor Mitzvah Project can be found at the website.
Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Yiddish scholar as Richard Katz; gas vans were incorrectly identified as gas vents; and a statement about a possible project with the Discovery Channel was incorrect.