The table is set with flowers and a festive tablecloth, the cake is ready to be sliced, and upbeat music is playing in the background. But the eighty-year-old woman sitting at the table does not look happy; rather, she appears to be in the grip of violent emotion. Her ravaged face still shows the remains of what must once have been striking beauty, and her emaciated body reveals a steely strength. I have never had a birthday party before in my whole life, she says, in a voice that defies me to feel sorry for her. That makes it an even greater privilege for us to make this celebration, I tell her. After a speech and a rose, amid many congratulations and the crowd singing Happy Birthday, we offer her a slice of birthday cake. She is smiling.
Across the crowded room, the eyes of two women meet and there is a flash of recognition: you look familiar; we must have met somewhere else, but when, and where? As they start comparing memories they discover that the last time they saw each other was over sixty years ago. The place was an infirmary in Nuremberg, Germany, where they had been brought from the concentration camps where they had been interned. At the time they had both been mortally sick and starving; each had thought the other was dying. They throw their arms around each other and hug, hard.
A choir of women is performing at a Chanukah party, singing beautiful songs in Hebrew. There is real poignancy in the moment; knowing where these women have been, what they have gone through, how they have triumphed over evil, and that now they are lifting up their voices in joy! One of the songs contains the refrain Nes gadol hayah po (“a great miracle happened here”), according to how this song is sung in Eretz Israel. Here in the Diaspora, we usually sing Nes gadol hayah sham (“a great miracle happened there“), and a woman in the audience points out that the choir is singing the song wrong. That gives me my cue and I jump to my feet to make an impromptu speech. They are singing the song absolutely right, I say, because we have a real miracle here, right here in this room. This is a club of miraculous survival, and these are miraculous voices, singing to us now, even though so many voices were silenced! It is really so: a great miracle happened here!
What do these little miracles have in common? They all took place in Club Nissim, a Day Program for Holocaust Survivors in Brooklyn, and as its program director for the past eight years, I have witnessed these and countless other moving occurrences. Club Nissim was named by its members in recognition of their miraculous survival. The Hebrew word nissim means miracles, for each man and woman in the program is truly a living miracle, and this is what unites an otherwise heterogeneous group of participants. Another facet that unites most of the members and makes the group unique is that it is comprised almost entirely of Jews who were born strictly Orthodox, and have remained so throughout their lives.
Club Nissim is located at and sponsored by The Boro Park YM-YWHA, which is funded by the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany and UJA/Federation. It is open four days per week, and offers a wide variety of activities aimed at fostering and maintaining physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing among its members. Thus, daily exercise, preventive healthcare classes, discussion groups, and lectures on Torah topics are on the schedule, along with movies, excursions, parties, and anything else that could make life fun and interesting.
It is Club Nissim’s job to add more joy to the golden years of its members, who come here not to bemoan the past, but to enjoy the present. They come to widen their intellectual horizons, to nourish their spiritual selves, and to cultivate friendships and an active social life. To wit, laughter and fun are high on the agenda! Participants may share painful life experiences, losses, stresses, and terrifying memories; and yet, one of the most striking facets of the group is the extent to which the vast majority of members have chosen to embrace life. They come trooping to Club Nissim in rain or shine, snowstorm or heat wave, looking forward to sharing good times with each other, and making up for some of the joy that was stolen from them in their youth. To many of the approximately 1,200 members, Club Nissim has truly become a home away from home.
I have lost my best babysitter, some of the participants’ daughters complain with a laugh. My mother always used to be available to babysit, but now she is busy at Club Nissim. Thank G-d, she is enjoying herself! Many of these grandmothers carry around Club Nissim’s monthly calendar and newsletter in their purses, refusing to commit themselves to anything, not even a doctor’s appointment, without checking the schedule first!
And a packed schedule it is. A typical week will have 25 to 30 different choices for varying tastes and interests, starting the day with prayers and exercise, moving on to a Torah lecture or a nutrition workshop, listening to music or discussing current events, practicing relaxation techniques or baking cookies, watching a movie or dressing up for a theme event, or going on an exciting trip to one of the numerous sights and landmarks of New York City’s five boroughs. There are also the monthly birthday parties, where birthdays of the month are celebrated. We are fervently hoping and praying that we shall be able to celebrate three upcoming centennials in 2012 and 2013!
For the past few years, the schedule has also comprised a concurrent, partly integrated, program for members who are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. This program, called The Circle, offers activities that specifically focus on cognitive training, such as memory games, rhythm and song, art therapy, and so forth. However, many activities, including the daily lunch, are attended by all members together, and the Circle often has visits from other members of the club who simply want to share the fun. Thus, social ties remain unbroken, and stigmatization is avoided.
Most of Club Nissim’s days are devoted to the here and now, but there are times when it is necessary to recall the past. Living History is the title of a collection of personal memoirs written by Club members over the course of several years. The memoirs, predominantly dealing with the authors’ Holocaust experiences, were painstakingly edited and gathered into three volumes, two of them illustrated with photos. Assembling the volumes of testimonials afforded the memoirists considerable satisfaction. It was very painful to write this down, and the nightmares came back again worse than usual, many said, but it is very important work, especially now that there are so many Holocaust deniers. To some, the memoir project opened up lines of communication with their own families as well; the books became a starting point for conversations about the past, about a history that had been too terrifying to share with the young.
Our current project, Living History: The Photo Album, is a fourth volume, consisting of photographs taken in Europe before 1950–many before the Second World War, but also quite a few from Displaced Persons camps. So far, approximately thirty people have contributed over a hundred photographs. It feels like we are creating a memorial over some of the people that were killed by the Nazis, say those who are lucky enough to possess some surviving photos. It is a time-consuming project and one that will require additional funding to complete, but it is an important tribute to the six million who are no longer here.
We who are privileged to work with this extraordinary group of survivors are constantly awed by them. To have endured such horrors, such loss, and such pain and yet to be able to live productive lives; to be able to laugh and love and give to others; to be able to keep faith with G-d: this is a true miracle! If G-d allowed me to survive this ordeal, it means that He is there, and that there is a purpose to my existence, is a sentiment frequently expressed by the members of Club Nissim. They see life as a series of personal choices, and they choose to focus on the good and the positive, no matter what.
Gam zu l tovah (“this too is for good”) is an ancient Jewish adage, meant to strengthen a person’s faith in the face of tragic events. The Holocaust survivors of Club Nissim are living examples of the application of this wisdom. They continually demonstrate that what it means to be a Jew is to recognize G-d’s hand in every instance, to realize that He has a plan for the world, and to trust in this reality even when walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We all need to learn from our survivors’ strength and faith. They have a priceless lesson to teach us and future generations.