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JFSLA Brings Joy to Holocaust Survivors with Café Europa

The volunteers at Café Europa are stalwarts who have been coming to the weekly gatherings for years.
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April 4, 2024
A gathering at Café Europa. Photo from Facebook/JFSLA

Every Tuesday at lunchtime, 106-year-old Holocaust survivor Risa Igelfeld saves a seat for her friend, 92-year-old, Maria Ross. Igelfeld met Ross the first day she came to Jewish Family Service LA’s Café  Europa, a weekly program where Holocaust survivors congregate and socialize. 

The fourteen-year age difference between the two Holocaust survivors is inconsequential. Their shared experience of losing family members during WWII and being forced to flee their homes and start over in America connects them. 

This bond is woven among Café Europa participants, who meet weekly at either JFSLA’s Gunther-Hirsch Family Center or the Valley Storefront Community Resource Center. Social worker Susan Belgrade, JFSLA’s Senior Director of Multipurpose and Senior Centers, oversees the program. 

For Belgrade, it’s not just work, it’s personal. 

Belgrade’s 98-year-old mother, Rose Gross, is a Holocaust survivor who comes to Café Europa every week. Gross gets so excited to come to Café Europa that she picks out her clothes the night before. A wide smile flashes across Belgrade’s face as she watches her mother show off her outfit to the other survivors. 

While participants exchange pleasantries about family and fashion choices, there is a deeper understanding of the shared hardships they have endured. 

“They understand what each other went through during the war, whether they were hidden in the forest, in a camp or on the run,” said Belgrade.

While the survivors sometimes process their shared trauma at Café Europa, the organizers of the program foster an environment marked by joy and celebration. Music and movement are a core part of almost every weekly meeting. For those with memory impairment, song awakens something inside the survivors. 

While the survivors sometimes process their shared trauma at Café Europa, the organizers of the program foster an environment marked by joy and celebration. Music and movement are a core part of almost every weekly meeting. For those with memory impairment, song awakens something inside the survivors. 

“When I see people dancing and singing and smiling and laughing and clapping and forgetting about all the pains and inconveniences in life, it makes me cry tears of joy,” said survivor Ross.  

Ross’ best friend in the program, Igelfeld, will often play piano for the group, harkening back to her days when she was a world-famous touring musician singing in 17 different languages. 

Bands like The Kosher Cowboys will stop by to volunteer their time and play for the seniors at Café Europa. On the upper floor of the newly-remodeled Gunther-Hirsh Family Center at JFSLA, Café Europa participants hold hands and dance in jubilation, many with assistive mobility devices. 

As the population of Holocaust survivors has aged, Café Europa’s programming has adapted. Many participants are accompanied by caregivers and some are brought to the community centers via Lyft vouchers, which are provided by JFSLA.  

Café Europa’s first and longest-serving volunteer, Colette Ament, remembers a time when the participants could get around more easily, but has seen how the unique bonds that connect these survivors have continued to grow. 

Ament, a current JFSLA board member, has witnessed survivors who hadn’t seen each other since the war reconnect through Café Europa. “The sense of continuity this program provides—they never thought they’d see this person again, and yet here they are,” she said. 

The volunteers at Café Europa are stalwarts who have been coming to the weekly gatherings for years. Ament introduced the program to her friend, JFSLA board member Shana Passman, who quickly fell in love. 

“It’s the highlight of my week,” said Passman. “There is just something about being around Café Europa that is uplifting and inspiring. And I have an idea it’s the survivors’ favorite day too.”

Many of the survivors who anchor their week around Café Europa were distraught when COVID hit and in-person gatherings were suspended. Understanding how vital this program is for the mental health and well-being of the seniors, Café Europa volunteers quickly pivoted and got creative. 

Volunteers would socialize with the Café Europa participants from outside their balconies at a safe distance. Nutritious meals were delivered to participants in need of food. 

While some Café Europa participants receive social services from JFSLA, the socioeconomic makeup of the participants is broad. Café Europa serves Holocaust survivors from all walks of life. Some participants are donors to JFSLA, while others are living at the poverty line.  

Despite income differences, the survivors come together to revel in their shared resilience. When asked about her secret to longevity as a spry 106-year-old, Igelfeld said, “I’m a hundred and six and four months. Don’t forget the four months!”

“I lost my two beautiful children and my sweetheart,” she continued. “I just asked myself one question, can I change it? No, I can’t. But what can I do? Count my blessings that they had been in my life.”

The survivors’ fortitude has been tested again in the wake of the October 7th terror attacks. When processing how they feel about living through another mass murder of Jews, some lean into the group discussion, while others prefer to navigate the trauma more independently. 

To provide additional support post-October 7th, JFSLA’s former Executive Vice President, Susie Forer-Dehrey, has been running a group specifically geared toward child survivors of the Holocaust. 

“During the Holocaust, there was no State of Israel yet. There was no place to go. It gives them strength that there’s a homeland they can go to and are connected to,” said Forer-Dehrey. 

The Holocaust survivors of Café Europa were clear about how others should respond in the face of the October 7th attacks.

“Be proud that you’re Jewish. This is number one. No matter what,” said Ross, who was forced to flee her Soviet Union home to the freezing temperatures of Siberia during WWII. 

“We’ve survived the Holocaust and we will survive this too.”

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