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Life Saving Help for Poland's Jews

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman

"Neither of us is connected to survivors of the Holocaust in a direct way," revealed Seyma Levine, who grew up on a farm in Rockland County, NY. Nevertheless, when Bernard and Dr. Seyma Levine of Wyckoff, NJ participated in a Global Volunteer service project last year in Poland, they felt compelled to help the Holocaust survivors they encountered.

In addition to performing their duties for the Global Volunteer project, which involved teaching English to public school students in Dobczyce, the Levines asked the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) how they could help Polish Jews.

"Dr. [Seyma] Levine called me about a year ago to see if she could be of help to the Jewish community while she and her husband were teaching English [in Poland]," recalled Kim Bayer, JDC's Desk Officer for Central and Eastern Europe. "When I found out that Bernard was a pharmacist and specialist in diabetes, we arranged for them to train social workers to deal with diabetic patients."

In May 1999, Bernard Levine presented an all-day seminar on diabetes health education to JDC social workers in Krakow. "The social workers came from all corners of Poland, including one who traveled all night to attend," recalled Seyma Levine. "This was the first seminar ever held on diabetes for these social workers." The seminar was translated into Polish, as none of the social workers spoke English.

"After the training session the Levines spoke with the local [JDC] representative and asked what was needed most urgently," continued Bayer. "The biggest need for diabetes patients were the blood glucose monitors."

According to Bayer, JDC services approximately 2,000 elderly Jews who receive cash assistance or medication. "The elderly live on pensions, which don't provide we supplement them so they can live at a 'modest minimum'". Within the elderly population there are about 500 patients with diabetes who are on JDC's caseload.

A JDC Fact sheet explains that the "JDC provides funds for the purchase of medications, which are not government subsidized and are beyond the financial reach of elderly Jews living on meager pensions." However, according to Bayer, the funds were not adequate to provide a blood glucose monitor for each diabetic patient. About 200 diabetics were in need of this device.

Personal blood glucose monitors, or glucometers, assist diabetics in treating their disease. By measuring blood sugar at regular intervals it is possible for a diabetic to more effectively manage their treatment by adjusting insulin dosages and diet. It is important for every diabetic patient to have access to a glucometer so that their fluctuating blood glucose levels can be monitored throughout the day.

Upon returning from Poland, the Levines made contact with LifeScan, a division of Johnson and Johnson, which produces blood glucose monitors. John Erickson, Area Director for LifeScan in Central and Eastern Europe, arranged for a donation of 200 glucometers - enough to provide for every diabetic patient who needed one. A representative from LifeScan traveled to Poland at the end of January to train JDC social workers in the use of these lifesaving devices.

"LifeScan is truly committed to helping improve the quality of life of diabetics, not just in Poland, but worldwide," declared Erickson. "It's been a pleasure working with the JDC on this project and possibly further activities with them..."

According to JDC fact sheets, the JDC renewed its activities for the Polish Jewish community in 1982, "after a lapse of 14 years". JDC "strategies" include: "To move the Polish community towards a greater self-sufficiency in all aspects of Jewish communal life. To ensure the physical and material well-being of Holocaust survivors... To help local Jewish communities develop and expand cultural, religious and youth programs to strengthen Jewish life."

"There's a common misconception that there's no Jewish life in Poland," reported Bayer, who noted that the Polish Jewish community is composed of more than just the remnants of the Holocaust. "There are young people, there are mid-generation, there are people who are really committed to the Jewish future in Poland."

Bayer described the nature of the Jewish community in Poland. She explained that there are almost 10,000 Jews in Poland and an "unbelievable Jewish revival there today." The major centers where Jews are found include Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, Lodz and Katowice. And this revival includes schools, youth organizations, summer camps, and services for the most needy, sick and elderly of the community, including about 2,000 Holocaust survivors.

"One of our main activities is welfare," explained Yitzhak Zohar, JDC representative in Poland. "This includes cash assistance, support of kosher canteens, free medications and medical equipment distribution."

While there is a Jewish revival, according to a JDC Fact sheet, there also appears to be "a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Poland." The Jewish Religious Community of Poland (JRCP) has created a "watch group to respond to anti-Semitic attacks and raise public awareness."

"It's not driving Jews out of the country," said Bayer, regarding anti-Semitism in Poland. "It exists. It's something they live with day to day, and they deal with."

JDC literature also notes that "in recent years, a growing number of youth and young adults have come to the Jewish community in an attempt to reclaim the heritage they were denied in post-Holocaust, communist Poland."

"A lot of younger Jews are just finding out that they're Jewish or part Jewish," explained Bayer. "Some are finding out on their grandparents' deathbed." The young and mid-generation Jews are now coming to the Jewish community to discover their heritage and develop their identity as Jews.

There are "problems like in the West," concluded Bayer. "We have to figure out how to reach out to other Jews, figure out how to keep people in the community."

Seyma and Bernard Levine followed through on their project, although it took almost a year to implement, and they are gratified that they were able to improve the quality of life for 200 elderly Polish Jews. And Seyma Levine reported that they also contributed to the community in another - albeit small - way. Upon noting that the prayer books in Krakow's Remuh synagogue were worn and shredded, they left behind their own prayer books "for future worshipers to use."

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee can be reached at (212) 687-6200. Information on the JDC can be found on the web at

Global Volunteers, a private non-profit, non-sectarian development organization can be reached at 1-800-487-1074, or on the web at

    •Copyright, 2000 Miryam Z. Wahrman


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