Almost 2,000 people attended Han Kaichen’s Bar Mitzvah, “but it wasn’t a very happy occasion,” he recalls. “Not like my grandson’s a couple of months ago.” That’s because Kaichen’s Bar Mitzvah took place in Camp Gurs internment and refugee camp in southwestern France. Constructed by the French government in 1939, after the Vichy government signed an armistice with the Nazis in 1940, it became a concentration camp for Jews of any nationality except French.
In October 1940, German authorities deported about 7,500 Jews from southwestern Germany across the border into the unoccupied zone of France. Vichy officials then interned most of them in Gurs. Conditions in the Gurs camp were very primitive. Food was scarce and poor in quality; there was no sanitation, running water, or plumbing. The camp had poor drainage. The area, due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, receives a great deal of rain, which made the clay campgrounds permanently muddy. During 1940-1941, 800 detainees died of contagious diseases, including typhoid fever and dysentery.
But because it wasn’t a death camp – more a transport camp – Kaichen had the opportunity to study for his Bar Mitzvah with a rabbi and read from a Torah they had smuggled into camp. However, two days later, Kaichen’s mother was transported to Auschwitz, and he never saw her again. He was now an orphan at 13, his father having been killed by the Nazis some time earlier.
In France, three Jewish organizations along with the Quakers made organized attempts to rescue children. The best known was Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (Children’s Aid Society; OSE), the Eclaireurs Israelites de France (a Jewish scouting movement), and the Mouvement des Jeunesses Sionistes (a Zionist youth movement). Operating nationwide, members of these groups used their institutions to provide hiding places for Jewish children, especially for more vulnerable foreign refugees like those deported from Germany. They also arranged the release of children from internment camps, and then smuggled them to safety in Switzerland or Spain.
Hans Kaichen was saved by one or more of these organizations’ efforts. At thirteen years of age and weighing 86 pounds, Kaichen was sent to Marseilles to recuperate, then through Spain and to Lisbon Portugal. “All I remember about that,” said Kaichen, “was that I ate the biggest and best meal I ever had.”
Kaichen was on the last vessel that sailed from Lisbon to Ellis Island. He was sent to California and lived in an orphanage until he completed high school. He was then drafted into the army to serve at the end of World War II, and then again into the army as an “alien soldier” during the Korean War where he was sent to France.
“I was told that I was not allowed into Germany,” said Kaichen. He smiled when he recalled that he understood why, but how good it would have felt to return as a Jewish survivor! He met his wife Doris while stationed in West Virginia, and in 1954 became a citizen. With the aid of the GI Bill, Kacihen received his degree in international relations. He went on to work as both an auditor and in traffic management for companies like Lockheed and Bullocks. He and his wife Doris had two daughters and spent 15 years living in Las Vegas.
Today, at age 82, Kaichen lives alone, (“though I do have a significant other,” he said). He is president of a Holocaust Survivor and Hidden Children Club that holds monthly functions. While he takes classes and attends other events, he is a little forgetful and not quite able to prepare food for himself. So, five times a week, Meals on Wheels delivers his food.
“It is affordable,” said Kaichen, “and I know I’m getting healthy food.” There is a misconception that only non-ambulatory seniors take advantage or are eligible for this service.
“Not so,” said Becky Lomaka, director of fund developent of Age Well Senior Services, a non profit, organization located in Laguna Woods, California. Since 1975, Age Well’s mission has been to provide resources so that seniors can maintain their independence and quality of life.
“We are really in the food business,” said Lomaka. “Our job is to make sure that seniors have adequate food. Most seniors tell us that they would skip meals or select things that were easy to eat – things that lack nutritional value.”
A recent survey indicated that seniors often skip breakfast. As a result they take medications on an empty stomach, and emergency rooms reported that incidences of falls were directly related to seniors’ lack of breakfast. “In response to that survey,” said Lomaka, “we added breakfast to our service.” The Meals on Wheels program delivers three meals a day for a suggested donation of $6.50. According to Kaichen, “it’s great deal!”
Individuals 60 years of age and older, who are living at home and unable to prepare their own meals or go out to eat, and have little or no assistance to obtain adequate meals are eligible to receive Meals on Wheels. Meals can be provided during short-term convalescence or long-term disability. “If they are able to get out,” said Lomaka, “we encourage them to get their meals at one of the local senior centers.”
Meals are designed by a registered dietitian and feature seasonal fruits and vegetables, with each meal furnishing one-third of one’s daily nutritional requirements. Each delivery consists of a hot, ready-to-eat meal, a cold meal to eat later in the day, and a breakfast meal for the following morning. Frozen meals are available for weekends.
“Without this nutrition people wouldn’t be able to stay in their own homes.” And there is another aspect to the program for those seniors unable to get out. “All of our meals are delivered by trained volunteers who provide a human connection as friendly visitors offering the socialization that many seniors lack,” she added.
Nutrition is a key element in the health of everyone, but it is often most critical to seniors who live alone and are unable to cook for themselves. Because of services like Meals on Wheels, seniors like Hans Kaichen can live independently and never have to worry about having access to a healthy meal. He clearly remembers when as Jewish boy, he was denied food in Germany and then received little to eat at Gurs. Thanks to Meals on Wheels, he will never have to face that again.
Age Well Senior Services can be reached at www.agewellseniorservices.org.