It was a “modest” sum of money, said Germany’s consul general in New York, but he, staff members and friends attending a concert at his residence last month wanted to do something to help after realizing the hardship Superstorm Sandy had caused Holocaust survivors living in its path.
“We decided to ask participants for donations,” Consul General Busso von Alvensleben said in an e-mail interview. “We all contributed. With this modest token of solidarity we wish to express our sympathies with those affected by Sandy.”
Although the flu kept him from personally handing the $4,000 donated that evening to Rabbi Moshe Wiener, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, German Consul Ellen Goelz attended to make the presentation Tuesday at the Haber House Senior Center in Coney Island.
“We know it was only a modest contribution compared to what was lost,” Goelz told Rabbi Wiener.
A few minutes later, Frances Irwin of the Midwood section of Brooklyn approached Goelz as she sat at a table with Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany.
“I was in hiding in the woods of Poland for two years and spent two years in Auschwitz,” she said as she rolled up her left sleeve to show the Auschwitz identification number tattooed on her arm. “I also survived the death march.”
Irwin, who wore a pin with the Hebrew word “zachor” — remember — on her lapel, said she is 90 years old and that although her home was not affected by the storm, she had come to thank Germany for the approximately $650 pension it pays her each month. And she said the home care she receives with the help of the Claims Conference is invaluable.
“These people here I bless day and night,” she said of the staff gathered in the room. “These are the people you should help, because they help us a lot. “
Goelz toured the first floor of the senior center, which is located just half a block from the ocean. Etty Friedman, director of the center, showed her the four-foot watermark, the spot to which seawater had risen in the building during the storm. She said everything on the first floor — including computers, exercise equipment, a commercial refrigerator, freezer, stove and books on the lower shelves of the library — was destroyed.
Rabbi Wiener said there was no structural damage to the building, but that it cost $17,000 to remove the water and to clean and sanitize the floor.
“This is a 20-story public-housing building,” he said. “The first floor is the senior center and the other floors are housing for seniors. The senior center was back up and running within two weeks.”
As he spoke, workmen wearing protective masks and suits were in front of the building, cleaning and sanitizing mats and other items salvaged from the first floor.
Rabbi Wiener also took Goelz and Schneider to his building, where he said the saltwater rose to six feet and caused the concrete floor to crack, causing a “sinkhole that caused a crater.” Everything on the floor, including computers and furniture, was destroyed. The building is still unusable, and its 50-member staff was relocated to five different sites to ensure that all services and programs resumed within a few days after the storm.
He said he has not yet decided how to spend the $4,000 donation from the German Consulate and would discuss with consular officials where they would prefer to see it go.
Goelz said she had met Holocaust survivors just a few weeks earlier while on a tour of Brooklyn organized by the Claims Conference. Schneider said the tour was just one of the ways his office keeps German government officials and representatives of German industry abreast of the condition of survivors here.
“When the storm occurred, we got in touch with the German government and German industry,” he said. “Because of their visit to Coney Island and other parts of Brooklyn last year they had a mental picture of the area and knew exactly what we were talking to them about. I was able to say, ‘Remember, we went to this soup kitchen and met 10 survivors who talked of their experience in the ghetto.’ I told them that each of their homes had been flooded and that they had no electricity. And we sent them pictures we took of the area, as well as written material. And Rabbi Wiener sent them pictures of his office and of water rising in the streets.”
As a result of that outreach, Schneider said the GDV, an association of all German insurance companies, donated $26,000 to Sandy relief efforts. He said the giant German insurance company Allianz donated $50,000 to help restore the infrastructure of the JCC of Greater Coney Island.
“We had specifically mentioned that building to them, reminded them that they were there and that the entire office was destroyed,” Schneider said. “It was not a lavish office, by any means, but it lost all of its basic equipment — telephones, fax machines, computers, tables and chairs — and it all must be replaced. They came up with the number of $50,000 and have already sent a check.”
In addition, Schneider said, the board of the Claims Conference allocated $250,000 to help Holocaust survivors caught in the storm.
“We worked with agencies that provide services in Brooklyn, Coney Island, Connecticut and along the Jersey Shore to give them emergency assistance grants,” he said. “The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty got $50,000, a group of Jewish family service agencies in New Jersey got $30,000, and the JCC of Greater Coney Island got $25,000. In all, we gave the money to 10 different agencies.”
With that money exhausted, the Claims Conference board two weeks ago allocated another $500,000 for Sandy relief. Schneider said his office is “speaking with agencies to tell them there is more money available to help poor survivors.”
Among those being helped is an 80-year-old survivor in Brooklyn whose home was flooded from Sandy’s storm surge. It destroyed her boiler and heating system as well as most of her personal belongings. It cost $6,000 just to replace the boiler and heating system, which was paid for with the $10,000 she received from her insurance company and FEMA. The rest of the insurance and FEMA money is being used to repair her basement. She has $2,000 in savings to replace everything else, including clothing. A grant from the Claims Conference is paying for a new washer and dryer.
The Claims Conference is paying for a new washer and dryer for a couple of elderly survivors in Far Rockaway whose basement was flooded, and for an 88-year-old Long Beach widow whose basement also flooded. She has Alzheimer’s disease, requires 24-hour Medicaid homecare and lives on a minimal income from public assistance. Her insurance did not pay for a new washer and dryer.
The Claims Conference also came to the aid of a survivor from Boro Park who lost his furnishings when a tree crashed through his window and landed in his home. FEMA had denied him money because he did not live in the right zone. Even those in the right zone have not received enough money from FEMA to cover all of their replacement costs and Claims Conference grants are helping them.
During her tour of the Haber House Senior Center, Goelz stopped to speak with a group of survivors to hear how they managed during the storm and how they survived the Holocaust. Manya Podolski, 82, told her that she lives nearby on the 11th floor of an apartment building that lost electricity and phone service as a result of the storm.
“I filled the bathtub and pots and whatever with water before the storm,” she said. “Water was restored after a few days, but there was no electricity or elevator for much longer. The telephone only came back a week or so ago. I live by myself and suffered a lot.”
Podolski said she survived the war by hiding with her mother for almost five years in the woods of Poland, being helped by non-Jews they met.
After a few minutes she stopped speaking.
“I don’t want to remember anymore,” she said.
In his e-mail, German Consul General Von Alvensleben wrote that he knows that many people suffered from the devastation of Sandy, but that “I feel particularly close to Holocaust survivors with whom the Germans share a history which not only separates but also unites us.”