Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Difficult steps

Today I met with Lena, a 78-year old client of our Hesed (welfare) system. She never married and has no children.

She is entirely dependent on JDC for everything – for her food, for her medicine, for her home care … even for her entire contact with the outside world. 
And meeting her was one of the most memorable and important encounters I’ve had in a long time.

Lena was born in Nikolaev, about two hours away from Odessa, in 1935.
She remembers the smell of gefilte fish and the taste of apple strudel on Shabbat as a little girl.

She remembers the arguments in her family, as the Nazis invaded, about whether to stay or to flee.
Her parents chose to be evacuated, and spent several years in Central Asia with her uncle, a former Enemy of the People, who was in internal exile. Everyone else in her family – all the other uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents – decided that the Germans would live up to their civilized tradition, and would almost certainly be no worse than the Soviets.

They stayed and were killed.
Every single member of her family except for Lena, her uncle and her parents, were killed by the Nazis.

Years later, Lena went back to Nikolaev and asked about her Grandfather, with whom she had a close relationship. All the neighbors remembered him, she said.
They remembered him because on that day in September 1941 when the Nazis rounded up all the Jews to the central square, he couldn’t walk.
So they put him in a wagon. And then they marched them all off and no one saw the Jews of Nikolaev again.

Lena settled in Odessa. She couldn’t imagine returning to Nikolaev. She worked as an engineer for a research institute until she retired in 1989.
And since 1999 she's been helped by Hesed. She has heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, a hip fracture. And in an economy like Ukraine’s today, with no Medicaid or Medicare, if you have a broken hip and serious medical ailments – well, you won't be able to afford decent medical care anyway, and your better choice is to stay at home and die slowly with some dignity than go to a terrible, awful, dangerous hospital and die very fast in a corridor with no sheets and no one to look after you.

Lena’s pension is about $150 a month. After paying for utilities and medicines, she has almost nothing left for food, let alone anything else. That’s one of the reasons why life expectancy is so short in a place like Ukraine (high 50s for a man, low 60s for a woman) – you can't afford to live longer, with the medicines and decent food that would keep you alive. So we help with a home care worker, who visits twice a day. We help with a food card, and medical support, and home repairs, and a walker, and more.

But Lena can't use the food card herself. So her case worker takes her shopping list and the JDC Food Card, and does the shopping for her.
Lena hasn’t left her apartment for nine years. The steps are too difficult.
There is a tiny step in her one bedroom apartment … it leads to a small balcony. Lena hasn’t been on that balcony either for nine years. It would be too dangerous.

But she is alive, and she has dignity, and guests come to visit her every day.
“Thank God for Hesed,” she told us. “Thank God it exists for us. Spasiba Bolshoya – thank you so much.”

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