Project Spotlight: Winter Warmth

The Fellowship  |  August 9, 2016

Paulina, IFCJ recipient standing in the walkway of an old, dark home.
Project Spotlight: Winter Warmth

Though it is currently summer, it is never too early for The Fellowship to identify impoverished elderly in Israel and the former Soviet Union (FSU) who need assistance when the freezing temperatures come. While most people know that winters in the FSU are quite frigid, many are surprised to learn that Israel’s winters, especially at the higher elevations, can be quite bitter.

Particularly affected by the inclement winter weather is the elderly population, especially those who live in poverty and whose housing conditions are inadequate under the best circumstances. Based on these inhumane and often life-threatening conditions, The Fellowship initiated Operation Winter Warmth in 2009, and each year provides needy elderly with heating grants, blankets, and portable space heaters.

A Lonely Holocaust Survivor Finds Winter Warmth with The Fellowship

Paulina, a 79-year-old Jewish woman, lives alone in Zhitomir, Ukraine. Her house has no indoor plumbing, so she must get her water from a well across the street. She struggles to carry water into her home, so her Fellowship caregiver brings her water during visits.

On a recent visit, Paulina politely asked the Fellowship volunteers who came to bring her food not to sit on the bed in her tiny house. It used to belong to her mother, and she doesn’t want anyone to hurt the only possession she has left that reminds her of her mother.

Paulina lives in the same house she was born in. She and her family fled when the Nazis attacked, running to the train without any belongings. Bombs dropped all along the way as they traveled in a wagon and an open train car. Paulina’s mother would cover Paulina with her own body.

“A woman near me was killed, and I was very upset,” Paulina said. “My mother tried to comfort me by telling me, ‘Oh no, she’s just sleeping.’ But I knew she was dead.” A large part of her family, including a newborn, stayed behind in Zhitomir. Paulina never saw them again.

The family fled to Stalingrad, Russia, “starving all the way,” Paulina said. They stayed in a two-room house in Stalingrad, but it was not safe there. “I used to wish I could be asleep when the bombings started. During the war we had to eat things that were not food. One day my father bought me a potato and said, ‘Eat all you want.’ I was ecstatic.”

The family returned home after the war to the horrors of what was left. “We lost 126 family members. Some were soldiers, but most were killed by the Nazis. Jews were forced to dig graves. Then the Nazis pushed them in alive and buried them. They said these Jews were not worth wasting bullets on. People said the land was alive for three days with people clawing to get out.”

Other survivors inhabited part of Paulina’s home, so her family was forced to live in the remaining rooms. Her mother knitted pillows from bandage wrappings. One day a Nazi collaborator police officer knocked on their window, asking for forgiveness. They were afraid to open the door, but finally her mother went out to talk to him and he said, “The Nazis lost.”

Paulina and her mother survived the war, but lost so many family members to the Holocaust murderers that Paulina says her mother “never recovered, and died of a broken heart.”

Today, Paulina lives in a two-room apartment, and can only use her heater for two hours a day in the winter. She covers herself with a blanket given to her by The Fellowship, which she called “a wonderful gift,” and added, “I know I’m okay under my blanket.” Paulina showed her Fellowship visitors a 110-year-old Hebrew-Russian prayer book she treasures, something that gives her hope and keeps her faith alive, even while living in poverty.

Thankfully, her prayers don’t go unanswered. She visits the local Fellowship-supported Jewish center twice a month for companionship and a warm bath. Paulina also receives food and medicine because of the generosity of Christians and Jews around the world who support The Fellowship.

Before the volunteers left, Paulina made sure to thank them. Smiling, she said, “The Fellowship‘s help is a big thing! Bless you!”