September 18, 2019

Race to Aid Eastern Europe’s Forgotten Survivors

In 1941, Iraida Solomonova, an 18-year-old slave laborer in Kuibyshev, U.S.S.R., was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. She was tortured and jailed for a year.  She then spent 10 years in a Kazakhstan gulag, where she endured hard labor, hunger, insect infestations and malaria before exile to Siberia.

Now 93 and living in Kishinev, Moldova, Solomonova is a survivor of two heart attacks and suffers from hypertension and thrombophlebitis. She has difficulty walking and has not ventured outside for several years. Her gas stove leaks and her 1958 refrigerator needs replacing.

Solomonova is one of 1,000 or more people The Survivor Mitzvah Project hopes to help as the end of 2017 — the peak season for charitable giving — approaches. Zane Buzby, the project’s founder, is preparing the year’s final distribution of funds, poring over lists of Eastern European survivors who are new to the program or need additional assistance.

This year to date, Buzby has brought in more than $500,000 to help just over half of the 2,300 impoverished, ailing and mostly forgotten survivors in Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Slovakia, Russia and Ukraine on The Survivor Mitzvah Project’s current roster. She hopes to raise at least an additional $250,000 by year’s end to assist Solomonova and other survivors, whom she defines as any Jewish man, woman or child impacted by the Holocaust.

“It’s always a race to the finish. We don’t have any source of guaranteed institutional funding,” Buzby said.

The Survivor Mitzvah Project ( has been a grass-roots effort since 2001, when the former actress and television sitcom director/producer traveled to Lithuania and Belarus to visit her grandmothers’ former shtetls. There, she encountered eight elderly survivors, living alone in Vilnius or remote Belarusian villages, poor and forgotten.

When Buzby returned to Los Angeles, she couldn’t get them out of her mind — survivors such as Zeydl Katz, then 80 and toothless, covered in dirt from digging up potatoes, his only food supply for the long winter. She began sending them money.

Zeydl Katz offers Buzby apples on her 2001 visit to Volozhin, Belarus.
Photos Courtesy of The Survivor Mitzvah Project Holocaust Educational Archive

The list of survivors quickly grew to 35 and kept expanding.

“I thought once I told people about these survivors living in such conditions, the major philanthropists and the Jewish welfare organizations would immediately step in,” she said.

They didn’t. So by 2008, Buzby had founded The Survivor Mitzvah Project, got 501(c)(3) status as a public charity, and started helping more than 750 survivors in five countries with financial aid for food, medicine, heat and shelter on a total budget of $209,000.

“These destitute survivors are forced to choose every day between food, heat and medication.” — Zane Buzby

Buzby,  a CNN Hero in 2014 and a recipient of the Anti-Defamation League’s 2017 Deborah Award, has relied mostly on individual donors. “These people who are compelled to help these last survivors are, and always have been, the lifeblood of the project,” she said.

Individual donors account for 91 percent of all contributions, mostly small donations averaging $150, with some up to $5,000 or $10,000. The project receives some larger contributions from corporate and family foundations.

In 2016, the project’s best year to date, it raised $711,185. All donations go directly to help survivors, except those earmarked specifically for general support, which include an annual contribution for overhead from the project’s co-founder, Chic Wolk, 91, and help from foundations for translators. Buzby takes no salary.

The project wants to ensure that each survivor — each of whom has been vetted — receives $150 a month, or $1,800 a year, for adequate food, medication and heat. But the need always has exceeded the resources, and providing all of the survivors on the current roster with $1,800 a year would require $4.1 million.

With less than $1 million a year, Buzby and her staff are forced to triage, distributing funds according to need. Crisis situations, such as hospitalizations, surgeries, expensive medications, caregivers and broken windows, are covered by a small emergency fund.

Over the years, the project has been life-changing for survivors, providing emergency aid as well as friendship and hope.

Anna Israelevna, 93, from Kherson, Ukraine, wrote to Buzby: “Thanks to The Survivor Mitzvah Project, I stay alive, I am warm, I have food, and because you helped me, I was able to have the operation on my eyes, and now I can see.”

Like most American Jews who Buzby meets, she once believed that the majority of Eastern European Jews had been murdered by the Nazis or had emigrated to the United States or Israel.

But many thousands were — and still are — struggling in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Their current pensions average $75 a month, just $18 a month above the line the World Bank established in 2015 for measuring extreme poverty. Some pensions, particularly in Moldova, are as low as $10 a month.

“These destitute survivors are forced to choose every day between food, heat and medication,” Buzby said.

These are survivors who receive no compensation or only a minimal, one-time payment of reparation funds from Germany as negotiated by the Claims Conference, and who receive no or minimal goods and services from the Joint Distribution Committee.

Data culled in September 2017 from 530 Survivor Mitzvah aid applications show that 69 percent of survivors do not have enough food; 73 percent cannot pay for doctors, hospitals or medication; and 50 percent need help with daily tasks or home improvements.

As they age — most are in their mid-80s to mid-90s — and encounter more health issues without health insurance or government assistance, their situation becomes more urgent.

And the number in need continues to grow.

The Claims Conference recently changed eligibility requirements for survivors in the former Soviet Union, cutting off compensation funds to 3,000. Many of those are seeking aid from The Survivor Mitzvah Project, which already has helped more than 100. (To help all 3,000 would require $5.4 million a year.)

Buzby also received the names of 70 survivors from Father Patrick Desbois’ organization Yahad-In Unum, which locates and marks the Einsatzgruppen killing fields of Eastern Europe and interviews aging witnesses. Buzby began collaborating with Desbois in 2015.

Buzby receives additional names from other survivors and volunteers in Eastern Europe.

Since her initial trip in 2001, Buzby has made 12 expeditions to Eastern Europe. She’s had the opportunity to see firsthand the impact that the project has made in survivors’ lives.

Mina Zalmanovna, now 83, whom she visited in Pinsk, Belarus, in 2007 and again in 2016, now walks less painfully and without canes, and can treat her diabetes and heart problems thanks to previously unaffordable Western medications. She has a new gas stove, replacing a wood-burning unit, new windows to protect her from rain and snow, and new curtains.

“You are my rescuers,” Zalmanovna wrote.

Buzby is planning an expedition to Moldova, where more than 1,200 survivors are scattered across 16 cities and villages. But first she needs to raise at least $120,000 to distribute.

More than 75 years since the start of World War II, Buzby is hoping major funders will step in so every survivor on her list can be helped and she can begin the search for the tens of thousands still out there suffering.

“Everyone has to die,” Buzby said. “But for a Holocaust survivor to die of neglect, what does that say about us as a people?”