Finding the Forgotten

Yael Eckstein  |  June 19, 2019

Yael embracing an elderly Jewish woman in need.

Judaism teaches, “He who saves one life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” We place an enormous value on each and every life, from the strongest to the weakest, the richest to the poorest, and the youngest to the oldest. Every life is precious, and each person is priceless.

In my work with The Fellowship, I regularly travel to the former Soviet Union (FSU). The people who we help there have no one else looking out for them, no one else to provide the lifesaving aid that they desperately need.

Not many people know about these elderly Holocaust survivors. It is hard enough to locate them, let alone travel to their small, remote villages to provide assistance. It is so easy for these Jews to fall through the cracks — and they often do, living their final days in poverty and loneliness. However, as my dear father, Rabbi Eckstein, taught me, we must make our greatest efforts to sustain these lives, because each one represents an entire world.

Every time that I travel to the FSU, I am a little bit nervous. Some of the harsh realities that I encounter there are difficult to witness. My journeys are never easy. I don’t stay in big cities like Kiev or Saint Petersburg, but small far-flung villages that feel like a third world country. I travel for hours, sometimes on unpaved roads, to reach the small villages where The Fellowship has located Jewish people in extreme need.

On one of my trips, I visited an elderly Holocaust survivor named Olga who lived in one of those villages. After the Holocaust, when she learned that her entire family had been wiped out, she decided to move back to the village where she was raised and to live the rest of her life in isolation.

It was in the middle of the winter, and I was freezing even though I had a warm coat and hat. When I got to Olga’s home, I was shocked to learn that this elderly and frail woman was living without heat. Her wood-burning stove – her only source of warmth – was broken. The only food in her house was a jar of pickled beets with maggots in it. Her only water had been drawn from a well before the winter. It was in a bucket, frozen solid and unusable.

Olga was lying in her bed, tired and weak. It looked as though she would not live much longer. Until that winter, we had never heard about Olga or her situation because she had always been able to survive on her own … barely. She planted her own vegetables and pickled them for the winter, cut wood for her oven, and drew water from the well. This was the first winter that she could no longer make it on her own.

On behalf of The Fellowship, I brought Olga a new oven and plenty of food. I explained to her that they were donated on behalf of Christians around the world who love her. Olga cried in relief – both because she so desperately needed the food, and because it came from people she never met, people who wouldn’t let her slip through the cracks. Olga told me that this was the first time in decades that she did not feel forgotten. Even though she was over 90 years old, Olga still referred to herself as an orphan. The trauma of seeing her parents killed, and the sorrow of living her life forgotten and alone, still haunted her. She was overwhelmed by the love and support of the Christian community for an elderly Jewish woman like herself.

Olga’s story is not at all unusual. There are literally tens of thousands of elderly Holocaust survivors all over the FSU who are all alone and in desperate need of help. Will we get to all of them before it’s too late? I don’t know. But I can promise that we will never stop searching and caring for these forgotten Jews. They mean the world to us.

With blessings from the Holy Land,

Yael Eckstein's Signature

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