As Sandra Glicksman walked towards the private room of Inge Heilbrunn in the Grace Plaza Nursing Center in Great Neck, Heilbrunn was in a wheelchair anxiously awaiting her arrival.
Heilbrunn, an 85-year-old widow and Holocaust survivor, was visibly upset. Jewelry that she had kept in her Scrabble box was missing.
“I’ve looked all over,” Heilbrunn said, beside herself. “It’s gone. Somebody took it. … It meant a lot to me.”
Aside from a social worker from Selfhelp Community Services, who visits twice a week, and some former neighbors and friends who have occasionally stopped by, Glicksman and her husband, Paul, are Heilbrunn’s only regular visitors.
While she was unable to help Heilbrunn locate her missing jewelry, Glicksman offered her an hour of company.
Glicksman is one of 75 people who volunteer weekly to visit Holocaust survivors in the New York area through a program called iVolunteer. It was founded in August 2007 by Tzvi and Elisheva Tauby of Brooklyn, and currently works with 150 survivors.
“Holocaust survivors are leaving us,” Glicksman, 68, said, “and if we have a chance to meet a survivor on a regular basis, it’s an honor and a privilege.”
She said she learned about iVolunteer after visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., two years ago.
“I made a contribution, and later I received a call about iVolunteer asking if I would like to visit a Holocaust survivor,” Glicksman said.
A retired nurse who lives with her husband in Great Neck, Glicksman said Elisheva Tauby arranged to meet with her in Great Neck to talk about the program.
“I said I didn’t want to travel to Manhattan and she said they didn’t have anybody on Long Island at the moment,” Glicksman recalled, adding that late last year she received an e-mail telling her about Heilbrunn.
“I’m doing this because I want to be helpful to Inge and make her life better, not because I have nothing else to do — because I do,” Glicksman said.
Asked what she hopes to get out of these visits, Glicksman replied: “I’ve been reading books and articles about the Holocaust since [President Ronald] Reagan went to Bitburg [the German military cemetery in which members of the Waffen-SS are buried]. I’ve met survivors but I’ve never had a personal relationship, and it was exciting to me to do this — to give somebody joy.”
She then turned to Heilbrunn and asked, “Am I giving you joy?”
“Yes,” Heilbrunn replied.
“The more I’m with Inge … I get good feelings about our meetings,” Glicksman said.
During their one-hour meeting, which took place in a corner of the hall directly outside her room, Heilbrunn talked about growing up in Germany and what it was like when the Nazis were elected and began their campaign against the Jews.
“I remember sitting at breakfast and hearing a knock at the door,” Heilbrunn said, adding that her father was taken away and imprisoned in Buchenwald for a time.
“When he came back, he looked 100 years old, and he never smiled again,” she recalled.
On Dec. 1, 1938, Heilbrunn said she and her sister were placed in the Kindertransport and taken to England to live. Heilbrunn was 14, her sister 11.
“My greatest sorrow is that I don’t have anybody here who speaks German so we can reminisce,” she said. “There isn’t even another Holocaust survivor here.”
She began weeping.
“I’ve lost contact even with the other Kindertransport people. We had a reunion in Israel about five or six years ago and one in England. … Somebody speaks Yiddish to me, I love it.”
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With that, Glicksman began speaking in Yiddish, and the two fell into conversation.
Heilbrunn said she married after the war and came to the United States in 1948. Her husband died in 1983 at the age of 65; they had no children. She worked at various secretarial jobs and as a dental assistant.
“I managed so well with my money,” she said. “I was no spendthrift.”
But she said that after years of living in nursing homes she is now living on Medicaid.
“I had a good voice and sang in the temple for 13 years,” she said. Everybody says I looked like Ava Gardner.”
She pointed to a picture of herself on her end table, taken when she was 24.
“The guy at the desk said I was ravishing,” she said with a smile. “I love to show it off.”
Heilbrunn said she has used a wheelchair for the past three years because of an injury to her heel. But she said she was not comfortable in a nursing home.
“The people here are too old,” she said. “They sleep all the time. They have one foot in the grave. I can’t find anyone here with whom I can have an intelligent conversation.”
That’s why, she said, she looks forward to the Glickmans’ visits. n
For further information about iVolunteer, go to ivolunteerny.com, or call 646-461-7748.