Behind the Headlines: for Holocaust Survivors, Amcha Provides `second Home’

Fajvel Berkovitz sits at the far end of the empty social hall, gazing vacantly ahead.

It is a spacious room, with two sofas, a coffee table, chairs and bookcases along the walls.

The books, old and used, deal mostly with one theme – life before, during and after the Holocaust.

It is shortly before Passover, and the Bible discussion group that commonly attracts some 40 to 50 members of Amcha, the National Center for Psychosocial Support of Survivors of the Holocaust and the Second Generation, has been cancelled because everyone is busy with preparations for their Passover seders.

Despite all the pre-holiday flurry of activity, Berkovitz still comes in, as he has every day since the center was opened in 1989.

“This is my second home,” he says in a gruff voice. Short and stocky, he speaks in a mixture of Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish and Russian.

Berkovitz comes from Lodz, a once-thriving center of Jewish life in Poland. During World War II, the Nazis put Berkovitz, who was then young and strong, to work as a slave laborer in a factory.

In 1944, he was transported to the Auschwitz death camp, where he was branded prisoner No. B6216. There Berkovitz was saved by his strength when he was sent to work at the nearby coal mines, a privilege usually reserved for Polish miners.

On Jan. 27, 1945, the day the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz, Berkovitz and his fellow Polish workers came up from the mines into the light of day and found themselves confronted by a Russian tank.

Suspecting him of being a German soldier masquerading as a local, the tank commander asked Berkovitz, “Are you Amcha?”

Berkovitz, who had little Jewish background, did not understand the question.

The Russian repeated his question. Then, exasperated, he asked in Yiddish: “Bist a Yid?” (“Are you a Jew?”)

Berkovitz answered yes, and the commander hugged him.

Amcha means “your people” in Hebrew. In Yiddish, it connotes “common folk.”

Now in Israel, Berkovitz says he has a special attachment to Amcha, the organization devoted to help Holocaust survivors.

“When I first heard of Amcha, I had no idea what they did, but I had to come. It was the first word I heard after the war. It saved my life, and I didn’t even know its meaning then,” he says.

He smiles, and the lines in his face get deeper.

“Amcha saved my life there, and again here. This is why I come every day. If there is activity, fine; if not, also fine. I have to come, see that everything is in order. The walls, the books, the place. Make sure it all stands.”

Manfred Klafter, president and founder of the organization, explains the origin of the name of the group.

“This word saved so many lives during the Holocaust — and it didn’t matter whether you used it in Poland, France or Holland. It was the Jewish password to life.”

Klafter, himself a survivor, was first involved in establishing Elah, a mutual support organization for Dutch Holocaust survivors compensation in the form of individual pensions and communal grants for counseling.

After opening a small office in Jerusalem, Elah officials looked for experts in treating Holocaust survivors, of which there were few, and began offering counseling to Dutch Holocaust survivors.

Within a year, demand for Elah’s services doubled and has grown ever since.

“This was a red light,” Klafter explains. “We realized that the need went beyond the Dutch survivors. In 1987, some of us left Elah and established Amcha along the same lines.

“It’s not that Holocaust survivors did not receive treatment beforehand, but it was done by professionals who did not know how to deal with the whole baggage of the Shoah.”

In Israel, there are some 300,000 Holocaust survivors — 200-000 of them over the age of 65 and approximately 100,000 child survivors.

In 1994, Amcha provided individual counseling to some 1,100 people, as well as other services to about 5,000 people.

Amcha’s 1995 budget stands at $2.4 million, most of it raised in Europe – - “Guilt gelt,” as Klafter calls it.

For example, the proceeds from last year’s Vienna premiere of the Steven Spielberg film “Schindler’s List” were donated to Amcha.

“We are counseling people who experienced a terrible trauma, but never dealt with it,” says Dr. Nathan Durst, Amcha’s national clinical adviser. Durst, himself a child survivor, is a founder of both Elah and Amcha.

“We are also counseling the second generation, who grew up in a post-traumatic environment and also did not deal with it,” he says.

“Although there is a common denominator to all post-traumatic behavior, Holocaust survivors are unique a different approach.

“These people have buried their grief deep inside for all these years, and we try to help them bring it out and learn to live with it,” says Durst. “The majority have somehow managed to rebuild their lives, have families, build homes, and on a day-to-day basis function quite well. But the grief is always in them.

“Moreover, Israeli society did not approve of them showing grief or talking about the hell they lived through. They felt deserted and betrayed there, and then again in a different way also here. So we try to let them feel that we are here only for them.”

According to Durst, Amcha’s counseling services, which are offered to individuals, couples, families and groups, are limited to two years.

But he says exceptions are made in the cases of survivors like Berkovitz, who need constant supportive counseling.

Although much of the costs are subsidized, all clients pay part of the counseling fee.

Amcha’s counseling centers in Ramat Gan, Jerusalem, Beersheba and Haifa also serve as social clubs. The centers offer classes in English, current affairs, and bridge as well as physical exercise programs.

Around the time of the annual Yom Hashoah observance, which this year falls on April 27, as well as at other times when the Holocaust grabs people’s attention, Amcha operates telephone hot lines, which are swamped with anxious callers.

The organization, which also runs a volunteer program for the infirm and disabled, trains and educates professionals and lay people with the goal of raising awareness about the plight of Holocaust survivors.

Amcha, which started operating in the United States only recently, will soon launch training programs in New Jersey and in Miami, according to the group’s officials.

Amcha officials said they are also currently discussing the possibility of opening offices in other American cities with large numbers of survivors.

According to Johnny Lemberger, the organization’s director, there are some 80,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States.

Back at the Ramat Gan center, it is lunchtime. Many doors have a sign that reads: “Counseling in Session — Do not Disturb.”

Berkovitz gets to his feet. From a closet, he pulls out his cap and briefcase.

He is somewhat perplexed by this year’s Yom Hashoah observance, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust’s end. “Fifty-year anniversary? What’s with a 50-year anniversary? Every night is an anniversary,” he says as he adjusts his cap and slowly walks down the steps into the quiet, shaded street.

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