Walter Lachman was 17 when he was liberated from the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. Jenni Unterman was a hidden child in Holland until age seven. Faina and Semyon Itskovich barely survived World War II in the former Soviet Union. What do they all have in common? Not much, except this—all are Holocaust survivors who call Orange County home.
When we hear “Holocaust survivor,” it often brings to mind a picture of gaunt individuals wearing the striped or gray pajama-like uniform of the concentration camps. But these four individuals—as well as other survivors—are very real people living in our community today. How have they rebuilt their lives since the Holocaust, and where has life taken them?
Family Lost and Family Gained
Walter Lachman was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1928. After losing his mother to leukemia and his father to tuberculosis by the time he was 11 years old, Walter went to live with his grandmother. And then tragedy struck again. Walter explains, “I had just completed seventh grade when Jews started being rounded up. My grandmother was sent immediately to her death. I was sent first to Riga ghetto, then to a camp in Latvia, and then to Bergen-Belsen where I managed to survive for the rest of the war.”
After Liberation in 1945, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC, a Jewish relief organization helping displaced people start new lives) helped Walter immigrate to the United States. “When I arrived here, the JDC gave me $20—just enough to get me to Massachusetts where I had relatives. I was able to complete my education, start a productive life, marry, and have a family,” he shared. “I’m very fortunate.”
Walter and his wife Jean retired to Orange County 20 years ago to be near their daughters, and later their grandchildren. Jean passed away seven years ago, and then Walter’s health began to fail. He looked to Jewish Federation & Family Services of Orange County (JFFS) and their Holocaust Survivor Programs for support. “It’s through them that I’m able to stay in my house. They provide me with material help through the Claims Conference (Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany), and also mental health. I have a caregiver now that they help pay for.” Walter is one of approximately 200 Holocaust survivors receiving support from the JFFS programs today.
Jenni Unterman: From Hiding to Helping
Born in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1938, Jenni Unterman wasn’t even two years old when war broke out. She and her older sister went into hiding, as did their parents. Over the next two years, Jenni and her sister were moved to many different hiding places until they were liberated in the summer of 1944. Their parents were not so fortunate.
Jenni and her husband have been living in Huntington Beach since 1981. “I don’t remember any of the details of being hidden,” she explained. “I pieced it together over the past 25 years, talking to relatives, meeting people in Amsterdam, discovering old letters.”
When she went to a meeting of hidden child survivors in New York in 1991, Jenni was inspired to start her own group. Through that group, she learned about and began to attend Café Europa, a social gathering for Holocaust survivors through Jewish Federation & Family Services. Jenni was then invited to serve on a JFFS advisory committee that helps ensure Holocaust survivors receive support for in-home care and social services. “I was honored to be asked, and I thought it was a mitzvah to do it. I was amazed that there are so many Holocaust survivors in Orange County who need assistance. Many are living in poverty. It’s been an eye-opener for me.”
Faina & Semyon Itskovich: From Odessa to Orange County
After enduring an unimaginably hard life in the former Soviet Union, Faina and Semyon Itskovich’s miracle story began in 1980 when they were finally permitted to leave Odessa and make a new life in Chicago. “Jewish people did not have any rights in Odessa,” explained Faina (84). “It was very difficult to find work. Our son almost didn’t get into the university for his master’s degree because he was Jewish.”
“It was very, very difficult to leave the former Soviet Union,” Semyon (90) continued. “Faina’s sister-in-law and brother were in Chicago, so that’s where the three of us finally came. I was a jeweler and metalsmith in Odessa, so that is what I was able to do here. I was very lucky. It was a good job.”
In 1984, Faina and Semyon moved to Orange County, where Semyon worked as a jeweler for almost 20 years and Faina did administrative work (after having been a math teacher). They are both retired now and still fairly healthy and active. Faina has enjoyed doing Chinese dancing in the neighborhood park. Semyon goes fishing off Balboa Pier and every day rides his Razor scooter around the neighborhood…and sometimes across the living room! They also love to cook—homemade salt fish, baked goods, and kvass, a fermented Russian drink.
The couple gets very animated when talking about the Russian Teas and Café Europa social events that they attend with other Holocaust survivors through Jewish Federation & Family Services. They have been associated with the JFFS Holocaust Survivor Programs since 2013. As they have gotten older, they have relied on grant money to help them out, particularly last year when Faina fell and broke her arm, and in trying to catch her, Semyon fell and landed face-down, needing dental work.
“They help us with food and cleaning,” Faina explains. “They help us with a lot of expenses. With our dental care. I don’t know how to find the right words for how much we appreciate their attention.”
Caring for OC’s Holocaust Survivors
Walter, Jenni, Faina, and Semyon are four of the approximately 300 Holocaust survivors who live in Orange County today. JFFS plays a key role in caring for and supporting this population, ranging in age from 73 to 104, through its Holocaust Survivor Programs. Approximately 25% live below the poverty level, with many more at risk.
Support is tailored to meet individual needs and can include financial assistance for food, medication, health care, and in-home care, as well as care management services, a “meal partner” volunteer matching program, the opportunity to attend cultural and social events, transportation to doctor visits and the grocery store, and assistance with filling out applications for reparation from the German government.*
DEFIANT REQUIEM: REMEMBERING & HONORING
“As our Holocaust survivors age, their needs are increasing,” said Cally Clein, Director of JFFS Holocaust Survivor Programs. We are assisting at least 30 survivors over the age of 90. Our goal is to ensure that all our survivors age with dignity.”
On April 16, Jewish Federation & Family Services is sponsoring the Pacific Symphony’s performance of Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín to raise awareness of the Holocaust and to support Jewish arts in the community.** Defiant Requiem is a concert-drama that tells the story of the courageous Jewish prisoners in the Terezín concentration camp who performed Verdi’s stunning Requiem Mass despite experiencing the depths of human degradation.
“We are pleased to support such an important artistic and historical program,” said Arlene Miller, President & CEO of Jewish Federation & Family Services.
“Defiant Requiem honors Czech conductor Rafael Schachter and those who performed Verdi’s Requiem in the camp, and also helps us continue the critical work of raising awareness of the Holocaust at a time when knowledge of this horrific event is fading in the U.S.”
Ildi Good, who survived the Holocaust as a young child, was instrumental in bringing Defiant Requiem to Orange County. After being interned in a labor camp with her mother for nearly a year, she was liberated in March 1945 when the Russians bombed her caravan as she was being moved to Terezín. Nearly 30 years later, she read about how Verdi’s Requiem was performed at the camp, but it was not until two years ago that she attended the Defiant Requiem performance in San Diego. “It was extremely meaningful and touching,” she shared. “I knew we needed to bring it to Orange County.” Ildi got in touch with Jewish Federation & Family Services and the Pacific Symphony, and the result is this month’s performance at the Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.
To learn more about Defiant Requiem and to purchase tickets, please visit JewishOC.org/DR.
**Social services for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution are supported by a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. **JFFS sponsorship of Defiant Requiem is made possible by the Albert Weissman and Rhoda Yvette Weisman Estate.
ERIKA L. SILVER, PH. D. IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.