It’s been 75 years since Holocaust survivors—many with not even a dollar in their pockets— arrived at Ellis Island. Most of these frail men, women and children ended up settling in Brooklyn which, today, remains the home to more survivors than any other city in the world. Fortunately, for these precious and still-vulnerable people, it’s also the home to Nachas Health Organization, a not-for-profit agency that’s been providing much-needed social services to the community for two decades. To Brooklyn’s survivors, Nachas is more than an agency—it’s a home away from home. Not a day goes by without meals, services and social events being provided to survivors, which are crucial to their physical and mental well-being.
Consequently, when President Trump recently invited Assemblyman Dov Hikind to bring survivors to the White House for the annual Chanukah celebration, it was only natural that the Assemblyman turned to Nachas. Rizy Horowitz, who heads the agency’s Holocaust department, immediately sprung to action.
“It’s pretty amazing to watch,” said Dov Cohen, a former Hikind senior aide and now head of constituent services for NY State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein. “Nachas treats these survivors like family members. Their staff does crucial work, providing regular events and assistance for these elderly men and women, who are in genuine need of the full-line of available services. Many of these people are well into their 90s, so having a place like Nachas to turn to, with its warm and dedicated staff, is just incredible.”
Ethel Flam was one of the survivors who Nachas brought to the White House. As a girl, Mrs. Flam lived with her parents in Kashua, Checkoslovakia until May, 1944, when the Germans invaded her city right after Passover on Shabbos in the middle of the night.
“They stormed into our home and yelled to us to get a bag,” she recalls. “My mother packed up our challahs because it was Shabbos. I had a four-year-old sister and a five-year-old brother who were both screaming hysterically.” Ethel’s family were all put on a truck, which proceeded to drive to the center of the city to a synagogue. There, the family was told to wait for the rest of the city’s Jews to congregate. “We sat on the floor,” Ethel recalls. “We had a little food that we had brought with us. We were stuck there for one week and the Germans made us undress and replaced our beautiful Shabbos clothing, which we had just sewn up for the holiday, with rags instead. They took away my brand new shoes. I was screaming, ‘Give me back my shoes!’ because we hardly ever got new shoes and it was such an occasion for us.”
After a long, difficult week, Ethel’s family was delivered, with other Jews, to a train. Packed into cattle cars, they rode for three days until they arrived at Auschwitz. “We had no food, no water, no bathrooms on the train,” Ethel said. “When we arrived, the Germans threw open the door and screamed at us to get out. I had a married sister with us and she was holding her newborn baby. There were Polish inmates there and they warned her, ‘Don’t hold a child in your hand!’ My mother grabbed her baby from her arms to protect it but she taken and sent to the left—to the gas chambers together with my little sister. I stayed behind with my older sisters and was sent to the right side. My thirteen-year-old sister ran back and forth between my mother and us and finally decided to stay with my mother. She was sent to the gas chambers as well.”
In Auschwitz, Ethel was put into what she described as a chicken coop. “It had slabs of wood in the form of planks,” she said. “We had no food. In the middle of the night, we were made to wake up in the pitch dark without warm clothes. It was freezing cold and we were made to stand for four hours straight waiting for Mengele each morning. Mengele arrived wearing shiny leather boots. He two dogs and a big stick with which he counted us without touching us. He always had a big truck waiting for any girl that he didn’t like. He would single them out with, ‘You have a big nose,’ and he would motion her to the truck. Girls would be thrown into the truck with the barking dogs. They knew they were going to the gas chambers and they would sing ‘Ani Ma’amin’ meaning ‘I believe in G-d…”
Ethel said when the Russians began to arrive nearby, the Nazis took a great number of the camp’s inmates on a march. “We walked for two weeks straight without normal shoes or warm clothing or food,” she recalls. “We drank snow on the way to survive. I was hobbling with my two sisters supporting me on each side. I begged my sisters to drop me. ‘I want to die,’ I said. ‘I can’t go anymore,’ but they didn’t let me sit down to rest because anyone who sat down was shot immediately.
“After two weeks we ended up in Bergen-Belsen which had even worse conditions than Auschwitz. We were all sick with Typhus and had no working bathroom facilities, no food. We were covered with huge lice which bit us constantly. At this point I weighed about 50 lbs. I think.”
On April 15, the camp was liberated by British soldiers. “One of my sisters was begging for water,” said Ethel. “My healthy oldest sister—the one whose baby was held by my mother so she should live—ran to get her water. By the time she returned, my sister was dead. My older sister used the water to wash her ritually and then placed her in the communal mass grave… I also begged my sister for some water, so she went to get me some but she never returned. I never ever saw her again.”
The doctors who came with the liberating troops wanted to send Ethel to the hospital but she refused because she was still waiting for her sister. “I fell unconscious and so they hospitalized me anyway,” she said. “From there I was transferred to Sweden until I recuperated. I had so many bloody welts from the lice bites that they would comb my skin with a scrub brush until blood was pouring from everywhere. I was the only survivor from my whole family along with my eighteen-year-old brother.”
To this day, Ethel says she wakes up every night at 3:00 am. “I see them taking my precious father away and leading him to the gas chambers.”
Despite all this, Ethel said that meeting President Trump at the White House was one of the greatest things that she could ever imagine. “The President was so nice to us and the White House was so beautiful. Who could ever imagine that after what we’ve been through, we would be honored by the President himself!”
“It was special that President Trump invited survivors to the White House, but arrangements needed to me made,” explained Rizy Horowitz, the Director at Nachas who focuses her efforts on survivors. “These were complicated arrangements because these are elderly people. A four-hour trip each way means careful planning.” Fortunately, Rizy and her entire hand-picked staff were uniquely qualified for the task. The daughter of survivors herself, Rizy and her team have been organizing outings and events for Holocaust survivors and other elderly people since taking over the Holocaust portfolio in 2010. Indeed, the staff at Nachas are among Boro Park’s the most patient, caring and attentive agency workers you’ve ever met. When you see them with the agency’s clients, it’s as if they are caring for family members.”
When Nachas began caring for Holocaust survivors, they began with 6,000 men and women. Today, there are only 700 left. But to those 700 precious and vulnerable souls, Nachas is a lifeline. They are offered everything from exercise and support groups to intensive case management; their reparations are tracked, their transportation is provided and even Yom Tov and Shabbos is taken care of for those in need. “When Nachas receives a request for a meal, a staff member personally drops by with a hot dinner,” said Frumie Cisner,who also heads up the Holocaust department at Nachas. “The Chanukah trip was above and beyond anything these survivors ever expected, but the day-to-day continues year round because their needs are very real.”
Photo caption: Rizy Horowitz of Nachas Health Organization with Holocaust survivors and Assemblyman Hikind at the White House.