Twice a month, the ballroom of the Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, N.J., is transformed into a pop-up European coffeehouse. There’s a sense of elegance and respect to this gathering, ambient with deep memories of what was before.
The attendees are all survivors of the Holocaust, who find community, comfort, camaraderie and good conversation at Café Europa, a project initiated by the Claims Conference. Inspired by a café in Stockholm, Sweden founded by Holocaust survivor Hédi Fried, where survivors would gather after the war to try to find family and friends, Café Europa is now replicated in more than 100 venues around the world, including South America, the former Soviet Union and across the United States.
There may be lunch or a snack, but the true nourishment is from the connection with others who have endured similar hardships.
“Isolation can be debilitating; even for well-functioning survivors, elderly loneliness can be crushing,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice-president of the Claims Conference. “Social interaction is critical to maintaining healthy emotional status and is one of the driving factors behind Claims Conference support for so many of these clubs. They provide an opportunity to share new programs and compensation news, while also serving as a gateway for people to interact with case managers and social workers. This creates a connection with survivors so when they need help, there is already an established relationship.”
By now, most of the 70 regular participants in the South Orange group know the twists and turns of each other’s stories — where they were born, where they were hidden or imprisoned, how they escaped — they’ve seen the numbers on each other’s arms. When the group began in 2001, under the auspices of Jewish Family Services of MetroWest, N.J., there were 200 participants.
Each Café Europa, no matter where they are held, follows a similar format, with informal schmoozing and then a program — where the guests are greeted warmly — followed by a guest speaker, film or live entertainment, then lunch and more socializing.
At the most recent meeting in South Orange, Deb Kram, client outreach manager for the Claims Conference, provided an update on services available to participants, and then invited them to meet with her privately outside the ballroom over the course of the afternoon.
“My job is to help you in any way I can,” she tells the survivors. She had a steady stream of people seeking her counsel, and she answered their questions or took down their information so that someone at the Claims Conference could get back to them promptly.
“I find it incredibly meaningful to connect. Time is running out. I want to meet with as many survivors face-to-face in the time remaining,” she said.
Rudy and Lotte Hammer of West Orange come to every meeting, and they have been sitting at the same round table for about a decade. He was born in the town of Spisska Bela in Slovakia, and said that until last year he didn’t really speak about his wartime experiences, just did a lot of crying. He was liberated from Auschwitz, where his back was broken, in 1945.
“After 70 years, I’ve had a lot of time to forget. But you don’t forget it,” Hammer said. About to turn 94, he’s resilient and active.
Unforgettable stories permeate the room. Another participant, Gina Lanceter, said: “This is a wonderful thing. We never forget. We laugh. Sometimes it’s sad. We are here.” She has spoken in more than 350 schools, sharing her wartime story. Born in Brody, Poland, she survived on a farm — her parents pushed her out through the window of a train, and a priest gave her the papers that saved her life.
Several years ago, she convinced her friend Hanna Keselman, now seated at her table, to join. Keselman said she was reluctant at first, feeling she didn’t need such a program. But slowly, she began attending, made friends and now said that the place is good for her. She was hidden in a children’s home in France, and she discovered that another man in the group was hidden in the same place. In her spare time, Keselman paints landscapes and still lifes; she has never wanted to portray the darkness she experienced.
“I want to show a better world,” Keselman said.
Susan Schechter, director of older adult and disability services for JFS of MetroWest, is passionate about Café Europa. Claims Conference provides core funding, which is then matched by local donors and foundations including The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, which established the South Orange program, the Curt C. and Else Silberman Foundation, the JFS Ellin Cohen Memorial Endowment Fund and the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest’s Jennie (Blinderman), Morris and Harry Slipock Fund.
Schechter said that in the first years of the program, people were always hoping to meet someone from their earlier lives, and there have been some reunions over the years: Two participants realized they were neighbors in Europe, and one man met his former Hebrew teacher. Once, two survivors learned that their grandchildren were married to each other.
Over the years, Schechter has arranged programs on Jews in India, Jewish comedy, Jewish women in America, a virtual tour of the Lower East Side and the film “Shalom Y’All,” about Jews of the South. She said that she doesn’t do as many Holocaust-related programs as in the past because the participants are “emotionally frailer” these days.
A team of volunteers assist Schechter by greeting survivors, serving sandwiches and helping to run the program. Jessica Glatt, a volunteer from Short Hills who is a lawyer and mother of three who has done pro bono legal work for the Claims Conference, is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. She said, “I get to connect with my grandparents without having them physically present. I feel such a connection to everyone here.”
In 2015, Glatt posted a photograph of her oldest child, then a baby, cradled in the baby’s great-grandfather’s elbow, showing the number tattooed onto his arm at Auschwitz. Several thousand people have clicked on the photo.
For Amy Toporek, the actress who entertained the group with Broadway show tunes, performing at Café Europa was a special honor, as she too is a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Her late grandmother had been a frequent participant with the South Orange group. Some in the group were tapping and swaying to the music, and then joined in when she sang “Oseh Shalom.”
Some Café Europas have a one-man band and dancing, Kram said. “Music revives the crowd. They may be crying to me one moment and then doing the mambo the next. It’s very beautiful to watch.”
Terry Israeli, who was clapping along to Toporek’s tunes with huge enthusiasm, as though dancing with her hands, has been coming to Café Europa since its beginning. Born in Belgium and hidden as a child, she used to attend with her husband, who passed away two years ago. Now an aide drives her. One of the last to leave the ballroom, she said, “I love to be with other survivors.”