Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Los Angeles—Actress, film and television director Zane Buzby had a promising career. She appeared in a series of films and then went on to direct hundreds of televisions episodes for such featured shows as DadsMarried... with ChildrenNewhartMy Sister SamHead of the ClassMy Two DadsThe Van Dyke ShowCharles in ChargeThe Golden GirlsBlossom and Sister, Sister. But then something else took over her life. As she explains…

“It began in September 2001, just after my first trip to Lithuania and Belarus. I was on a roots trip to visit the birthplaces of my ancestors, just a short break from directing television sitcoms. Little did I know that those two weeks would change my life forever. In Lithuania, Professor Dovid Katz handed me a short list of elderly Holocaust survivors and asked me to bring them food, medicine and American dollars. In small villages across Belarus I visited them in their crumbling dwellings. Destitute and alone, they were indeed struggling to survive. I left them the supplies I had brought and what cash I had.

“Back in Hollywood I searched and searched for an organization to help those survivors I’d just met on my journey, all of them elderly and in failing health, needing food, heat, medications and kind attention. But I soon realized that there was no organization set up to deliver direct and continuous financial aid to these last survivors of the Shoah in Eastern Europe, not one place supplying them with the crucial monthly financial aid they so desperately needed. [Admittedly, there are organizations that do exert some effort on behalf of these elderly Holocaust survivors. Every Pesach they receive a box of matzohs—which remain stacked in their closets because without teeth matzoh is difficult to eat.]

Time passed. Life went on. But I just couldn’t get these people out of my mind. Who would care for them? How could they possibly make it through the harsh winter without help? Someone had to do something and I guess I realized that someone was me. I decided then and there that I was going to start sending what money I had and make an effort to gather donations from family and friends. But how do you communicate when you don’t speak the language? How do you explain where the money is from and why it’s being sent? Not that it mattered where the money came from, but I just wanted them to know that they had not been forgotten, that there were people thousands of miles away who cared, even though they were perfect strangers.

“That first time, I emptied my pockets and wrapped up a few $20 hills in a plain piece of paper, and on that paper—since I do not speak or write in Russian or Yiddish— I drew a star enclosed in a heart. I hoped they would understand that it meant friendship and love from a world far away. I sent my first envelope across the miles. And then another, and then another. Remembering back to the tiny villages I had visited, I wondered whether the survivors would even receive them. But then a small miracle happened. A few weeks later, I received the first of many letters. Short notes really, written on torn scraps of paper. Each one had a few lines in Russian or Yiddish and then at the bottom, each had a heart enclosing a star—my signal to them and now their signal to me that they understood! And so this was how I communicated in the beginning. I would send money, and they would send back a heart encircling a star—telling me that everything was received, and that they were sending thanks and love my way.

“That went on for a few years. In the meanwhile, the list of survivors needing help grew to hundreds and hundreds as more and more survivors in Eastern Europe were identified. Through a stroke of luck I met Chic Wolk in Los Angeles, who had once studied with Professor Katz. He knew how great the need was, had helped some survivors over the years and wanted to do more. Chic and I immediately joined forces. With his kind heart and continuous generosity we were able to grow The Survivor Mitzvah Project and help many more people.

“Other good things started to happen. I met the first of many ‘angels’ who came to the project, each contributing their specific talents to this effort: Deborah KovitzBarkat, who self-publishes our beautiful book of photos and letters and prints our newsletters, and her sister Sonia Kovitz, who was our first and for years our only translator. I was finally able to communicate in Russian and ask the survivors to write about themselves and their families, to tell us about life before the war and what happened to their families during the darkest days of modern history. The voluminous correspondence (thousands of letters in Russian and Yiddish) that this effort resulted in is now a part of our growing Holocaust educational archive of primary source documents, life histories, letters, eyewitness testimonies and videography. As more and more outstanding volunteer translators from around the world have joined us in this grass roots effort, we have been able to really get to know the survivors we help personally even though they live a world away. And over the years we have all become a ‘family of strangers’ with our own family crest, a heart and a star.”

Today, Buzby and partner Conan Berkeley are currently working on a documentary film entitled Family of Strangers, about The Survivor Mitzvah Project’s emergency efforts to help the last survivors of the Holocaust. Shot on location in four countries, the film spans six years of emergency aid expeditions.

As Buzby explains: “Most of SMP’s recipients—some 2,000 of them—live in dire poverty in rural areas of Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and other former Soviet states, as well as Slovakia. Many might be considered ‘the lucky ones’; they escaped the Nazi roundups and mass executions of World War II and avoided deportation to concentration camps. Some hid out in the woods for years, hooked up with partisans or joined the Red Army. But history has a cruel sense of irony. It was common for these survivors to be the only people who returned to their farms and shtetlach, if those places even still existed, after the war. Friends, lovers, relatives, teachers—all lost. They had little if any proof of their suffering compared with those captured by the obsessively record-keeping Nazis.

“Then what meager savings the survivors managed to accumulate for their old age in the ensuing 45 years of Communist rule mostly disappeared when the Soviet Union broke up. Perestroika may have looked great to the. West, but robber capitalism and the new nations’ own currency woes left many citizens with nothing.

“Of course, many charities do wonderful work for the survivors of Eastern Europe. But they may not even know that some of the most isolated ones are still living, and that’s where SMP comes in. Accompanied by a multilingual Belorussian interpreter and a volunteer camera crew to record this dying generation’s remembrances of their struggles and lost Yiddishkeit culture, I travel to Eastern Europe every year to deliver cash to some of the survivors, drink daybreak vodka toasts (they insist) and seek out more of them.

“For example, one town is six hours off the main road. It has two Jews left; he’s 92, she’s 91. Some towns were burnt by the Einzatsgruppen [Nazi mobile death squads]. Some are still standing, though they’re mowing over many of them now. We get to see what life was like 100 years ago—log cabins, all-wooden synagogues, more horse-drawn carts than cars, like out of Fiddler on the Roof.”

And so Zane Buzby continues to direct, but now she directs a new vision of life—for herself and for those impoverished still living in a world most of us have forgotten.

For more information about The Mitzvah Project, visit online at www.survivormitzvah.org.

By Philip Sieradski