The staff at The Blue Card, a New York-based organization that supports indigent Holocaust survivors in the United States, noticed a spike in requests for payments for expensive dental care last year. With limited funds — Blue Card’s money comes from the Claims Conference and private donations, including at its annual dinner next week in Manhattan — and no expertise in dentistry, the organization turned to the wider Jewish community for advice.
Executive Director Elie Rubenstein formed a dental advisory panel, advertising in this newspaper for retired dentists who could advise Blue Card if the dental procedures scheduled for the survivors were necessary, and if the dentists’ fees were reasonable.
More than a dozen retired dentists volunteered for the panel, most of them American-born. And Lewis Reznik, himself a Holocaust survivor.
Reznik, a native of Janow (a Polish shtetl near Bialystok) and longtime resident of Chappaqua, in Westchester County, is the only known survivor among Blue Card’s group of dental volunteers, Rubenstein says.
“I have empathy for these people,” fellow survivors, says Reznik, who spent several years during World War II in his hometown’s ghetto and hiding in the nearby woods
Reznik — who came to the United States in 1947, studied dentistry at Columbia University and retired in 1997 — consults with Blue Card by looking over patients’ X-rays and medical histories.
“I felt as a dentist, as a survivor, I should be able to contribute something.”
Still fit enough at 80 to bound up stairs two at a time, he speaks frequently about his Holocaust experience at local schools and community groups, wrote his autobiography last year (“A Boy’s Holocaust,” Dog Ear Publishing), attends the daily minyan at the Mount Kisco Hebrew Congregation and works with his wife Louise in their garden.
“He’s very committed,” Rubenstein says. “He understands what they” — other survivors — “went through.”
The recent increase in’ requests for Blue Card to subsidize expensive dental treatments, often in the five-figure range, is the result of wartime backgrounds and current Medicaid regulations, Rubenstein says. Many survivors, in camps or ghettoes or in hiding during their youth, had little or no access to dental care; now they are having dental problems. Many for years feared going to a dentist.
“Holocaust survivors,” he says, “have different dental needs than the general population.”
Medicaid, pays for many of the recipients’ medical expenses but not always for dental care, Rubenstein says. “The huge need is in dentistry. They can’t afford it. We can’t afford it either.”
Survivors turn to Blue Card, which was formed in Germany in 1934 to assist suddenly indigent Jews, then reconstituted itself five years later in the U.S. to help the growing population of Jewish refugees. Today Blue Card provides financial and other aid to about 2,000 aging survivors in this country.
Blue Card’s dental advisory volunteers, Rubenstein says, “help us help more people.” Like Reznik, they determine what treatments are appropriate, and sometimes help arrange lower fees.
Reznik, who was honored recently by the Westchester Jewish Council for his community service, and is President of his Janow landsmanshaft (organization of Jewish residents of the village), returned to Janow for the first time a decade ago. He met remaining members of Catholic farming families who had provided food to the Jews in hiding, offered thanks to the people who had risked their lives during the Nazi occupation, recited Kaddish for his martyred relatives at a memorial marker and searched in vain for his childhood home and other places “that do not exist” in the now Judenrein shtetl.
His 2010 autobiography, more than a decade in the making, grew out of a taped interview with Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation, and a suggestion by his late daughter, Michelle, that he write his life’s story.
“For a very long time,” he writes in his book, “I was unable to discuss or talk about the events. I did not broach or reflect on the subject until 50 years had passed.”
As long as he is healthy, Reznik says, he will continue to do his volunteer work for the survivors served by Blue Card. “I was in their shoes.”
The Blue Card will hold its annual dinner, Monday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m., at the New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. For information: (212) 239-2251; bluecardfund.org.