From Steve Schwager, CEO
Over the years, I have made many home visits to poor elderly Jews living in the former Soviet Union (FSU). Almost every visit involved trudging up flights of stairs to visit elderly “shut-ins.” I also have visited dozens and dozens of Federations, determined to bring the faces and needs of those elderly Jews home to the Jews of North America. And while my audiences will always hear the harsh statistics—that today we serve some 160,000 poor elderly Jews living in 2,900 cities in the FSU, and tens of thousands more need our help—what truly touches each of us is the story of one person. As many of you know, for me, that person has always been Klara Kogan. But for the grace of God, Klara could have been my mother or grandmother—so visiting her or just thinking about her moves me to tears. Indulge me to share her story one last time...
Klara Kogan was born on July 24, 1905 in Bendery, Bessarabia, then part of Russia (today Moldova). Klara never completed elementary school; in 1919, her entire family moved to Kishinev, where at age 14 she began working at a carton-making workshop. In 1925, the family moved again, this time to Bucharest, where Klara was employed in a textile factory. She married in 1929 and gave birth to her only son three years later. In 1940, when Bessarabia was annexed by the Soviet Union, Klara and her family moved back to Kishinev, where she started working as a cashier in a store.
During World War II, Klara was evacuated with her husband and son to Kazakhstan, near an oilfield. Shortly thereafter, her husband joined the Soviet army and left for the front lines; Klara worked as a cashier and raised her son. The remainder of Klara’s family was killed in the Holocaust: Nazis shot her mother, her older sister was taken to Germany, and her younger sister was sent to dig trenches and never returned. In 1948, her husband returned from the army and the family moved back to a one-room apartment in Kishinev, where Klara continued working as a shop cashier until she retired in 1960.
In 1981, when Klara was 76 years old, she lost her husband; her beloved son died four years later, leaving Klara without a living relative anywhere in the world.
The only people who cared for Klara were North American Jews, thousands of miles away. They reached her through JDC’s Hesed center network.
Thrust into poverty following the economic collapse in the former Soviet Union, Klara became a Hesed client in 1995. When I met her for the first time in early 2002, she was receiving a monthly pension of $16—the cost of her monthly utilities. In truth, Klara was kept alive by Hesed services and its network of volunteers who regularly visited her and provided her with food, medicines, and homecare as well as a hearing aid and rehabilitation equipment.
Compounding Klara’s difficulties was the fact that she lived on the top floor of a five-story walkup building. When I first met her, she had not been out of her apartment for several years. She actually could walk down the stairs, but could not get back up. On my first visit to Klara’s home, I expected to find a depressed woman; she blew me away by being the exact opposite! Klara impressed me with her crystal clear memory, quick wit, and analytical abilities. I grew to understand that she also had a very special gift for getting along with anyone, no matter what their age, social status, or educational background.
During that first encounter, Klara told me how grateful she was for all of the help she received from Hesed. She did, however, share one complaint: she was not happy with her homecare worker who came one hour per day, five days a week, to help her. The problem, she said, was that the homecare worker wanted to clean her apartment each day. I asked Klara what was wrong with that and she warmly responded that she would prefer to use the hour for conversation because she was otherwise alone. That was Klara: grace and good humor.
Klara never let a guest—including me—leave without her first sharing a joke. The one she often told me was: “A grandfather was walking on a beach with his grandson. All of a sudden a wave swept the child away. ‘Oh Lord!’ the grandfather screamed. ‘All my life I was a good man, followed all the laws, and helped others. How do I deserve such a cruel punishment? The boy’s mother will die of grief, his father will commit suicide—please do not let this happen!’ The wave grumbled and threw the boy back to the beach. The grandfather held the boy, looked up at the Heavens and at the wave, and complained: ‘But he also had a hat on!’”
I am sad to report that Klara has passed away at the age of 103; I am comforted that she has joined her husband and son, and that JDC was able to help her in her time of need. May Klara’s memory be for a blessing.
Statistics and charts and projections are important to our programs; but Irv and I know that it is also our responsibility to remember that each needy elderly Jew has a unique and often difficult story to tell. Our helping and remembering them is a reflection of our humanity. How well we all know that JDC is often the only lifeline for these elderly Jews and, with your help, we will continue to care for them as long as they live.