A committee for the survivors | German-Jewish cultural heritage in Lithuania | DW | 29.11.2012
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A committee for the survivors

Only a tiny fraction of the Jewish population survived the Holocaust in Lithuania. Today, many of the survivors are sick and require social support. DW visits with the Jewish community in Vilnius.

Behind the resplendent, beautifully restored front door, you have to negotiate an electronic barrier, climb a few stairs and navigate a number of corridors before arriving at your destination.

The office of the Committee for the Survivors of the Lithuanian Ghettos is not exactly hidden, but you need to know how to find it here in the center of Vilnius, not far from the university.

Living solidarity

The office is a cramped room, packed full with furniture, computers and mountains of paper and files. The telephone plays a central role here. It rings almost constantly.

At a large table, a staff member carefully sorts through banknotes, placing them in pre-prepared, addressed envelopes. Ranana Manichova, an 80-year-old former journalist sits opposite him, alongside the librarian Fania Brancovska. She's 10 years older and, like Ranana, a ghetto survivor.

They are pleased about their visitor from Germany. A box of pralines is opened while pieces of paper rustle as the door opens and closes and the computer keyboard clatters.

The elderly and very energetic women are not here in their capacity as eye-witnesses, rather in their role as members of the aid organization for ghetto survivors. They take care of their fellow sufferers, those who are no longer mobile or are in desperate need of support.

Tobias Jafete on the telephone at the offices of Committee for the Survivors of the Lithuanian Ghettos in Vilnius, July 2012. Foto: DW/Rabitz

Tobias Jafete is always on the telephone

Ghetto children

But they all have the same background, as Manichova explains in fluent German: "All of us here in the office were hidden and that's how we survived the Holocaust." Together with her mother, Manichova fled from the ghetto and hid in a tiny attic belonging to a Lithuanian farming family.

Tobias Jafete, who is something like a boss here and always on the telephone, was saved as a child. He survived by using false papers from non-Jewish relatives. Today, Jafete distributes aid money personally and not just in Vilnius. Tomorrow he will travel with his envelopes to Kaunas.

"We have to. It is our life," he says in a mixture of German and Yiddish, and explains how important it is for him to get out of the house each morning and go to work, even though he is well past the age of retirement. For 18 years, Tobias Jafete has come to the committee twice a week and he will continue to do so as long as his feet will carry him.

Help and advice

As Jafete explained, the committee distributes financial assistance for medical supplies - up to 29 euros ($38) per month. There is additional aid to cover social needs, such as household assistance with daily tasks like cleaning and shopping. Advice is also given on the telephone or in personal meetings, as well as help with filling out forms or the verification of official documents.

Without such documents, Holocaust survivors are not entitled to the receive compensation money they so desperately need. State pensions in Lithuania are meager and have been cut further in the wake of the financial crisis. The public welfare and healthcare systems are ramshackle.

The elderly survivors in the former Soviet Union belong - according to the Jewish Claims Conference (JCC) - to the neediest Jews in the world. "The ever-widening disparity between pensions and the cost of living leaves many Jewish Nazi victims in the Former Soviet Union without the ability to obtain subsistence food, medicine, and winter supplies (…) and no hope for a dignified quality of life in their old age," was how a publication by the JCC described the situation.

In light of that, it also finances social care initiatives. In 2011, the Jewish Association Vilnius received almost $270,000 from the JCC.

Ranana Manichova from the Committee for the Survivors of the Lithuanian Ghettoes in Vilnius, July 2012. Foto: DW/Sarah Hofmann

Ranana Manichova from the Committee for the Survivors of the Lithuanian Ghettoes

Countering loneliness

The small office is an important meeting point for committee members. It is a place to talk and share experiences, a place to actively live solidarity with those who are not doing so well.

It is the shared historical experience, the wonder of survival and the pain of the loss of family members and friends, which brings them together. However, "We can't just live in the past," says Ranana Manichova.

And because of that there is are simple motivations for them to come here: to get out of the house, not get rusty, get used to daily life, stay independent and escape the loneliness affecting so many of the elderly population.

On the wall there are glass picture frames containing small photographs of former ghetto residents who survived the Nazi occupation in hiding. But there are gaps. Missing photographs show that in the meantime, many survivors have died.

In Lithuania today there are just 99 Holocaust survivors. At some point, Manichova, Brancovska, Jafete and the others will no longer come here either.

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