Vital meals help Holocaust survivors amid coronavirus crisis

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Holocaust survivor Alice Rosenberg speaks to meal delivery volunteer Freida Rothman from her balcony in Brooklyn, New York. Many of the borough’s Holocaust survivors, who are isolated in their homes because of coronavirus fears, are relying on meal deliveries from Jewish community organizations. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

NEW YORK (AP) — Brooklyn caterer Israel Frischman is continuing to prepare dozens of meals for elderly Holocaust survivors even though the Jewish community center that provides them owes him money.

The Nachas Health and Family Network in Brooklyn has been forced to suspend its counseling services, exercise classes, and Torah lessons due to the coronavirus outbreak. But it’s relying on the kindness of Frischman and volunteers to continue delivering vital kosher meals to survivors, many of whom live in poverty, and are in their 80s and 90s and at a high-risk of the contagion.

Frischman and volunteer Freida Rothman are united by their roots and their cause. Their grandparents survived the Holocaust, and they say it’s their duty to help others who suffered unspeakable horrors in concentration camps and who are now isolated at home, fearing the impact of the fast-spreading virus.

“People have to do what they have to do. They have to be kind,” Frischman says via videoconference. “Sometimes it doesn’t suit our pockets the right way, but it’s not about what goes into our pocket. … We have to make sure that people have what they need to continue to survive.”

The coronavirus has infected more than 350,000 people worldwide and killed more than 15,000. The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems. Over 100,000 people have recovered from the illness.

“This is going to go down in history, and you’re going to think back: ‘What did I do to make a difference? How did I make other peoples’ lives easier and better?'” Rothman says, before delivering meals in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood.

“My grandmothers are the most empowered women I know—both survivors of Auschwitz. So, for me, my first reaction was: ‘What are we doing for the elderly? What are we doing for the survivors, who are not only important to me, but to the whole community, and really, to the whole world,'” she says.

Before the virus outbreak, about 40 survivors would come daily to Nachas (Yiddish for “joy”) to receive legal assistance, study Torah, exercise, get counseling, and eat. All activities were suspended as the state asked residents to stay at home unless they have vital reasons to go out.

“We’ve all heard the news and we know what’s going on, and that the elderly should not be out on the streets and running around,” Frischman says. “But we make sure that these people get their food, regardless.”

Many Holocaust survivors in the U.S. rely on donations because they live in poverty, struggling to pay their rent and even buy food.

Frischman delivers 30 to 35 kosher meals three times a week to Nachas. The menu includes options like tilapia or flounder with vegetables, chicken with potato souffle, baked ziti, and eggplant parmesan. The women love the food, and always took a packed meal home when they used to eat at the center before the crisis.

These days, though, they rely on volunteers for delivery, including Rothman, a jewelry designer who last year organized a “Women of Strength” gathering for dozens of Holocaust survivors, and who now tells their story of courage on Instagram.

Rothman recently arrived at the home of survivor Hannah Nudel, wearing latex gloves and a turquoise face mask. After delivering a warm meal on Nudel’s doorstep, Rothman chatted with her from a safe distance.

“Hannah, is there anything else you need? Anything? We’ll bring it for you,” Rothman says from the hall.

From her floral-wallpapered kitchen, Nudel pauses and says with a sigh: “I need a refuah shlema”—Hebrew for a “complete recovery.”

“You need a refuah shlema?” Rothman asks, then adding: “Refuah shlema to you!”

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