This nonprofit’s mission is to help Holocaust survivors

Masha Pearl, executive director of the Blue Card, a nonprofit that helps Holocaust survivors.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

This year’s public health emergency has been difficult on everyone. But for those who suffered through the Holocaust, it can be especially problematic.

Holocaust survivors face issues of isolation and depression that can add to an already full plate of medical worries during the pandemic. That’s where organizations like the Blue Card can help. Based on the East Coast, the Blue Card helps survivors across the country.

More than three-quarters of people it assists require help with daily activities such as cooking, dressing or washing, the Blue Card says on its website.

Financial and transportation issues are also commonplace with survivors facing difficulties paying for housing or utilities.

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The Jewish Light spoke with Masha Pearl, the organization’s executive director, about some of the problems her clients must deal with and how the Blue Card can help.

What does the Blue Card do?

The Blue Card is a national nonprofit organization whose sole mission is to provide financial assistance to needy Holocaust survivors. We are based out of New York, but we help survivors in more than 35 states (including Missouri), and we provide aid to more than 3,000 needy Holocaust survivor households with emergency cash assistance and ongoing assistance to prevent emergencies such as homelessness and eviction as well as additional supplemental aid during COVID.

Where did the Blue Card’s name come from? 

The name came from Germany, where the organization started in 1934. Donors were assisting Jewish families who were losing their livelihoods as a result of Hitler coming to power. When a donor made a donation to a Jewish family in need, they received a stamp and blue card. When the founders immigrated to the United States, they kept the name as it was, and they kept the mission the same, which is providing aid to Jewish individuals in need who suffer from Nazi persecution.

Have things changed much for the organization over the years?

The mission has stayed very similar. We’re really focused on helping Holocaust survivors to maintain their independence and to stay in their homes as long as possible, because survivors fear institutionalization as it brings back memories of their time in incarceration in the camps, and in hiding and fleeing from Nazi persecution. The idea is that the Blue Card can assist with a month of rent or with ongoing payments to maintain that independence and to bridge the gap between income and expenses.

What health issues do Holocaust survivors face that other seniors don’t? 

Many survivors battle cancer, and the rate of cancer is higher than that of the general elderly population due to the malnutrition they suffered and the effects of the war and stress. All of these contributed to them getting cancer in later life. There have been studies that show the rate is significantly higher among the survivor population.

Additionally, Holocaust survivors suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and many have less in terms of family support networks. During this time, in particular, when survivors were already isolated and lonely, they have been shut inside their homes, and many of them were not able to receive visitors. They were not able to go to their local senior center as they were used to and socialize with others.

This has really been detrimental to their emotional health, so the Blue Card has been seeing rising levels of depression, insomnia and stress. Also, hypertension and poorer sleep habits. We have been developing programs to address all these things.

What does that mean on a daily basis? 

On a day in and day out basis, the majority of our assistance is financial assistance. So as dental and medical offices have been opening up, the Blue Card has been providing financial assistance for survivors to afford dental care such as dentures, and medical care such as hearing aids, and other supplies such as adult diapers, as well as special adjustments for their homes including stairlifts and guardrails and modifications for the shower to make it safer.

We are also providing a telephone emergency response system to allow survivors to be safe in their homes. If there is an emergency, they can press a button, and an operator will pick up so an ambulance can be dispatched, if necessary. It is truly a lifesaving device.

We’ve also been providing masks and additional funding for grocery delivery as well as medication and medical delivery.

How many survivors are left in the U.S.? 

In this country, there are about 75,000 Holocaust survivors remaining.

Has the pandemic prompted any new approaches to serving survivors? 

During this time specifically, the Blue Card has been working on programming of a virtual nature, so we had conferences with leading psychotherapists on specific topics related to Holocaust survivors, such as maintaining positive mental health and wellbeing. We’ve also been sending battery operated companion pets to survivors that mimic the look and feel of a real pet. This helps to decrease depression. It boosts mood, decreases blood pressure and improves sleep. We’ve helped survivors at home by sending mood-boosting lights and these lights mimic natural sunlight, moderate circadian rhythm and help to improve mood and increase focus.