November 12, 2019

Soviet survivors know where to find local support

Like many grandparents, Yefim and Frida Yufa enjoy talking about their grandchildren, bragging about the kids’ academic achievements and showing off their grades. But those stories take on a new meaning when told in a group of Holocaust survivors, many of whom once hardly expected to reach old age.

“Coming here makes you want to dress up and meet people,” Yefim, 84, said. “I know everyone by name as well as their children and grandchildren. We are like a family here.”

The group is a part of the Association of Holocaust Survivors from the Former Soviet Union, run by Russian-speaking volunteers in West Hollywood.

The association that once was created to help newly arrived immigrants find housing and jobs is becoming a place where aging members share their joy of socializing, giving people like the Yufas a chance to tell their stories.

Yefim Yufa was 9 years old when the Nazis invaded his native town of Zhmerynka, Ukraine, in 1941. Soon, soldiers herded him, his parents and brother into a ghetto encircled by barbed wire.

Yufa was forced to work with other boys his age at a stable operated by Romanian soldiers. Often, the guards gave boys a piece of bread, the most precious gift for malnourished children.

Food was scarce. Inmates died from typhus and other diseases almost every day. Out of 36 relatives, only Yufa, his brother and their parents survived.

When the war ended, Yufa attended a textile institute in Ukraine. In 1991, he immigrated to Los Angeles with his wife, Frida, and their two daughters. A year later, the couple joined the association.

“For some of us,” he said, “being here is the only opportunity to meet others and spend time with their friends.”

Frida Yufa, 74, who was born in a concentration camp, is the youngest member of the group.

Her family lived in Bessarabia, modern-day Moldova, when the Nazis seized its hometown and forced the family into a concentration camp in Ukraine. When Frida was born, in 1943, her parents scrambled to find a piece of fabric in which they could wrap their baby. A Jewish woman, named Frida, offered a set of old bed sheets in exchange for naming the baby after her.

Frida was still a child when the war ended, but she already had lost most of her relatives.   

“I grew up without aunties, grandmothers and grandfathers because they all were killed in the Nazi camps,” she said. “I don’t even have their photos, as if they never existed.”

The Yufas joined the association when it began, in 1992; Frida became a secretary a few years ago.

The association was founded by the late Si Frumkin, a vocal activist who advocated for bringing Russian Jews to the United States as part of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.

By the mid-1970s, more than 72,000 Jews had migrated from the Soviet Union, many of them settling in Los Angeles. Frumkin and his organization helped the members navigate government agencies, find housing and locate jobs. 

As Holocaust survivors age into their 80s and 90s, the group has shifted its focus to support the members’ needs. Now, the group is more like a social club, providing a supportive environment for survivors. Together, they celebrate birthdays, the New Year and Jewish holidays.

“Many people are getting older, and communication becomes a very important aspect of our lives,” said Simon Shpitalnik, 85, the association’s president. “We love spending time together.”

For birthdays, the group sends its members $25 gift cards and visits those who moved to nursing homes.

Every month, the association collects a $2 fee from its members. Other funds come from sponsors, including Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. The city of West Hollywood provides meeting space in the Plummer Park auditorium.

Over the past few years, the group published two books in English and Russian, “Victims of the Holocaust Are Telling Their Stories” and “The Holocaust Did Happen.”

Every Monday, a group of about 10 volunteers, also known as a committee of team leaders, gathers in the auditorium to plan upcoming events, write obituaries of deceased members and organize monthly trips to Desert Hot Springs.

“Being here is our reward for our stolen childhoods,” said Yevgeniya Netes, 80, a native of Ukraine and an association member for 18 years. “We are very close.”

Like many survivors from the former Soviet Union, Netes reads Russian newspapers and watches Russian TV. The group provides a setting where she can speak Russian and feel at home.

“I want to spend time with people who have the same background,” said Netes, whose family was forced into a ghetto after the Nazis occupied her hometown. “We support each other a lot.”

For Yefim Yufa, his volunteer work helps him stay connected with fellow seniors.

Since 2005, the number of members has declined to 200 from 351 as more survivors have become bedridden or moved into nursing homes.

Some groups lost their team leaders, and the association has been struggling to replace them with new volunteers.

“People are getting older, and it’s not easy to convince them to volunteer at our age,” Frida Yufa said.

Mikhail Rozenfeld, 86, another former concentration camp inmate, said having the group available makes it easier to deal with living without relatives.

When World War II broke out, Rozenfeld lived with his parents, brother and sister in the western part of Ukraine. Shortly thereafter, Rozenfeld’s mother was taken from her home and sent to a concentration camp, where she died.

When young Rozenfeld tried to flee his hometown with his father and brother, the Nazis captured him. He spent the next several years in various concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He never saw his parents and brother again.

After the war, Rozenfeld moved to Donetsk, Ukraine, where he met his future wife, Frida. When the couple immigrated to Los Angeles in 1995, they were warmly welcomed by the association’s members.

“When we moved here, we didn’t have any friends, and the people from the association accepted us as if we were their relatives,” he said. “If I need anything, I always call them.”

A recent meeting quickly turned into an impromptu birthday celebration for Frida.

More than a dozen committee members sat at a square table covered with a blue polka-dot tablecloth. A few bottles of pear juice sat next to plastic boxes filled with tomatoes and grapes. Two women distributed pirojki, fried patties of potatoes and meat. The U.S., California and West Hollywood flags leaned against the wall. Several posters displayed photos from the group’s 25th anniversary celebration in January.

Yufa sat quietly next to Frida as members read their birthday wishes.

One member said, “Frida, the CIA is still trying to find out how you preserved your beauty.”

“You are just as beautiful as Melania Trump,” another said.

Netes said even though the group’s size has been shrinking, the association’s work is in full swing, and members are always happy to spend time with one another.

“It’s painful to see people passing away,” she said. “But what can you do? We have to keep going.”