By Dorothy Le —
While the rest of the world sees the Holocaust as a tragic period in history, there are a great number of those who still suffer daily from its cruel aftermath. Those who have managed to survive, whether by escaping from a mass killing spree or just by being the sole survivor of their family, are spread all throughout Eastern Europe and are struggling to carry on one more day with barely any food and within cold, rigid living conditions. While this has been their reality for several long, harsh decades, one woman’s trip has started to slowly change the lives of those who changed hers.
Enter Zane Buzby, an established comedy director and producer in Hollywood, who made a trip to Lithuania in 2001 to learn more about her ancestors’ past. Along the way, she was introduced to a few survivors living in a remote village. It was that pivotal moment where she felt a tug in her heart to do something to help.
Buzby then founded The Survivor Mitzvah Project, which provides food, medicine, and financial aid to thousands of survivors in over eight countries. The project is a 100 percent grassroots effort, receiving funds only from generous donations. But more than just providing the physical needs, the Survivor Mitzvah Project aims to give back to the survivors what the Holocaust took away-–love, compassion, and kindness.
We spoke to Buzby about the journey in creating the project, including the survivor stories that affected her most, and how everyone in the world has a connection to the Holocaust.
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Religio Magazine: How did it all begin?
Zane Buzby: I knew all of my grandparents when they came during the Great Immigration, in 1910, 1913, and I grew up knowing the names of their parents. But I was a comedy director and during a break while shooting a sitcom, I decided to go Eastern to Europe to visit the birthplace of my grandparents. Going there, it certainly felt like I was going back in time. It was like entering a different world and made the period of the Holocaust seem like it was really close. There I was, walking down the same streets, crossing the same rivers and going through the same forests where thousands of people were murdered. And the landscape was so different than anything that I’ve ever seen: little wooden huts and synagogues, and tons of bullets holes on the sides of buildings, villages entirely empty and rotting away. And that is where I met the Holocaust survivors.
They actually call this the ‘Bloodlands,’ the land between Stalin and Hitler, where they shoot people on the spot as opposed to shipping them off to concentration camps or death camps. “Operation Barbarosa” was the operation to kill the Jewish population in many countries in Eastern Europe. This is entirely different than anything I’ve ever read about in the Holocaust. When I met these people, they were so ill and alone, and had no one and nothing because most of them were the sole survivors of their families. They either ran from the killing fields or hid in the forests and became Partisans, fighting the Nazis. If the war had gone on for a few more months then there would be nobody left.
So this was an incredible group of people. When I met them, they were on their hands and knees digging for potatoes because they wanted to get them out before the ground froze since that was all they had for their winter food supply. It was a very dire situation. Thanks to a translator, I was able to hear their amazing stories—not just about their experience of survival but also their outlook on life. They were not even bitter. They were positive individuals who had such aspirations and hope for the future. They just want their stories told and they want to reach out to young people today. The message that they want to share is that ‘you have to fight, and you have to take care of each other.’ It’s so important because we are all a part of each other. They don’t hate Germans, they don’t hate Ukrainians. They don’t have any hatred in their hearts…
RM: What is it that keeps the survivors so positive and have so much hope for the future?
ZB: They realized how important it was to bring kindness and compassion to strangers. Each one of them are alive due to one act of kindness from the stranger. For example, someone threw them a piece of bread or someone hid them in a barn for one night, or someone did not point them out for being Jewish. I met a man who was a survivor living in the United States who shared how he was brought to a killing field when he was 12 years old in Lithuania. One by one, they brought the boys into the field and he heard gunshots, and he thought that this was the day he is going to die. So as the guards were walking them all into the field, he tripped over a rock and caused a guard to suddenly start firing shots. The boy fell onto a pit of dead bodies and laid completely still, pretending he was dead. So the execution went on all day and dead bodies continued to fall on him. He ended up surviving because he was underneath all the protection of these bodies—his friends, neighbors, brothers and sisters. Then he waited until it was nighttime before he crawled out and then ran to a house nearby. There, a Lithuanian family took him in. As it turns out, some were angels and some were devils.
There is another survivor by the name of Isaak Bakmayev and I’ve visited him a couple of times in Ukraine. He is 87 years old now and was 12 years old at the time of the Holocaust. He was just playing on the street with his friends when a truck came by with a loudspeaker, ordering all the Jews to gather in the marketplace. He goes to tell his father and his father immediately knew that this was a death sentence because he heard from rumors from the neighborhood that once people were gathered in the marketplace, they were all mowed down by machine guns. So his father grabbed him, his brothers and sisters, and his pregnant wife, and took them to a Ukrainian family and asked them to hide them. And they did. They hid in the tiny cellar for months and it was cold, dark, and damp. Isaak’s mother even gave birth to his sister there. They were all starving and the mother didn’t have milk for the baby. So she gathered a few bread crumbs in a cloth, dipped it in water, and fed the baby that way.
At night, they would have Isaak run out and forage for food, since he was blond haired and blue eyed, and had the best chance of passing off as a Ukrainian. So often times he was stopped and questioned and beaten on his way to scour for bread, beets and carrots. The scary part is that Isaak carried his father’s razor in his boot, so that if he was ever stopped and tortured about where his family was hiding, he could slit his own throat on the spot before he could give away their whereabouts. I mean, 12 years old! So I asked him, “Isaak, you must really hate the Ukrainians, they massacred almost 80 members of your family.” But he said, “How can I hate the Ukrainians? Ukrainians killed many members of my family, but Ukrainians also saved my life. I don’t hate the people. Some were murderers but some were angels. I don’t hate.” So the survivors don’t hate an entire race but they judge each person by their own merit.
There was another man I met who is 91 years old. Most of his family were killed by the Ukrainians, and by the time he returned to his village, it was a mass grave—nothing but rubble everywhere and no one was left. So I asked him, “Do you hate Ukrainians?” And he said no. Then he said something absolutely remarkable, which also speaks to today’s world. He said, “Nationalism is the root of all evil and the cause of all wars. No one has the right to feel superior because of their family, country, or religion, because a person has nothing to do with any of that. However, if a person comports himself as a kind, compassionate, caring and decent human being, then their family, country, or religion can be proud of them.”
So that really speaks to the xenophobia of the current world. People should be celebrating each other’s differences, but instead are attacking one another. So this is the root of all evil. This is the cause of all war.
This is really the goal of Survivor Mitzvah Project. We want to make sure that no survivor should ever be cold, hungry, or neglected again. These people are still suffering 75 years after the start of the war, without health insurance or doctors, or anything else within the social security nets that we have here in the States for the elderly. Some had strokes, some are bedridden. If we don’t act now then many are going to die due to neglect, not because it is their time to die. I believe that how we treat Holocaust survivors really show who we are as people, as a human race. How we treat them now will inform how we will be treated in the future. We all are part of one world, we are part of each other so we need to take care of each other and not be selfish, just caring for ourselves.
People would pay $37 for parking here just to see a movie, but they don’t realize that $37 dollars would keep someone from going blind in Eastern Europe. We have people over there who are going blind because they cannot afford $29 dollar eyedrops, so are now suffering from glaucoma. They basically have to choose everyday between food, heat, or medicine, because they cannot afford all three. The people in Moldova, for example, receive a government pension of $10. Imagine living on only $10 a day. Of course, things are a lot cheaper there, but they still have to pay Western prices for medication. So with this project, we are working to make life more livable for them, bringing them the kindness and compassion that they so richly deserve
RM: Germany is supposed to be paying back reparations to the survivors, but why are there so many people still in need?
ZB: There’s an organization called the Claims Conference, which is a self-appointed organization, and have been the funnel for the German reparations’ money since the 1950s. They’ve helped a lot of people in the beginning, but lately, they make it very hard for the survivors to receive reparation money, especially Eastern Europe. Now, if you were a documented survivor of a concentration camp and had a number on your arm, you will get something but it is still not enough. Let’s say that you and I logged on to the website and pretended to be Holocaust survivors and tried to apply for their aid. Even with the best skills and modern technology, we would still need to hire a really good lawyer. They simply do not want to give the money away. They have gotten so big that they are pretty much in business for themselves. So in Eastern Europe, these people do not have access to a lawyer, don’t know how to use a computer, and do not have anyone to advocate for them. Some applied 15 years ago and still receive nothing; some received a one-time payment.
What Survivor Mitzvah Project does is that we give them a stipend of $150 a month, and for that they can receive food, heat, medication, and shelter. That might not seem like much to us, but to them it is giving them life. Unfortunately, we do not have enough funds to help every survivor on our list. And every day we are finding more and more survivors needing aid. That’s why we need people who read this article to donate.
It’s not easy raising money for old people. It’s much easier raising money for children. It’s really sad. But here, we have two ways that people can help. First and foremost, what’s most important is the welfare of the survivors. Just go on the website, click the donate button, and donate whatever you can. And then we have a growing Holocaust archive. We’ve collected so many amazing stories within the past 15 years. These are the sole survivors of their family and friends, so when they die, 1,000 years or 1,500 years of Jewish history vanishes with them because only they know what went on in that time period. That’s why it’s so critical to get them all on tape.
These testimonies from the survivors are not only rich in stories, but also reveal so much about the the human condition. You also hear about the fighters, all the kids who fought to survive at the time. Actually, many kids who hear about the stories today are deeply moved by it, whether they are in middle, high school, college. It really hits home with them because these kids realize that the survivors were once kids as well, who had hopes and dreams of becoming actors, musicians, writers, athletes, just like you and I once did too.
[“Why We Go” video showing The Survivor Mitzvah Project in action in Eastern Europe]
RM: How has other communities gotten involved with this project?
ZB: This is not only a fight for people who are Jewish, but we’ve also had many other denominations helping us as well, including Christians, Catholics, Buddhist, etc. They all see it as a major humanitarian effort. We had a middle school that we worked with in San Diego, and the kids have seen the Holocaust survivors who came to their school and spoke. They all realized that these people were once their age when all this had happened and they really wanted to help. So their teacher called me and we discussed possible ways on how they could. Now, these were low-income, immigrant Somali and Vietnamese kids, so what did they know about the Holocaust? Yet we see that every country, in some point in time, has gone through a great upheaval that cause separation from their families. So these kids got it and they could relate. So through several fundraisers, such as car washes and bake sales, they were able to raise $3,800 and saved the lives of two survivors for an entire year. It was an amazing project, and it also showed that we all have something to do with the Holocaust because there are genocides going on in the world today.
I grew up in the ‘60s and was around for the civil rights movements and anti-war movements and we marched along the streets and shut things down. We were very active politically. But nowadays, people are very much asleep in this country. They don’t know how the government works, and they don’t teach a lot of history in schools like they used to. They don’t understand that “We the people” means “We the people can change things.” So it is very encouraging to see people uniting for women marches, town hall meetings, supporting their city representatives in order to make a change. People coming together is the only way change can happen.
Germany couldn’t have done what they did if they didn’t have local collaborators. And actually, it was the collaborators who did most of the killing, because the Germans couldn’t usually tell who was Jewish and where they all lived. So the collaborators would do it and were paid in alcohol or money, and a lot of it was hate-based. It was the collaboration that brought this into monumental proportions.
Yet, Denmark stood up and refused to do it. The King of Denmark wore a yellow star and said, “The whole country is Jewish. Now what are you going to do?” So when Denmark heard that there was going to be a raid, just like there was with Anne Frank and her family, they went on a late night spree and organized all the boats and canoes to carry the Jewish population from Denmark all the way to Sweden where they were safe. Everyone helped everyone. That was an example of a country standing up and Germany left them alone. So if one person stands up and says “No, we won’t do this,” genocides can be prevented.
We have to know that strength lies in numbers and that we have to take care of each other. Just show up. You don’t have to be active, you don’t have to be vocal, because numbers count. If no one stands up to do anything, then the hate in this world will mow us all down. We all come to a point in our lives where we think, what do I stand for? Otherwise, what are you as a human being? There is no better feeling than becoming involved with something and making positive actions. I get to save a life everyday and so can everyone else.
RM: How have these experiences affected you personally?
ZB: I’ve definitely realized how easy it is to help people and make change. You don’t need thousands to people or thousands of dollars. It’s not impossible. You just got to put one foot in front of the other and just do it. I also learned that kindness and compassion are the two most important things in life. Whenever I ask a survivor about what is the most important thing in life, they always say, “kindness and compassion towards strangers.” Even if you can’t help monetarily, just put a hand on a shoulder and say a kind word. It means the world to them to know that there are people in the world today who haven’t forgotten about them.
Let’s also not forget about the extraordinary people who helped Jews, the rescuers, the “Righteous Among the Nations” as they are called. At that time, even just tossing a piece of bread to a Jewish person could get you executed. So when we asked them why they still did it, they said “it was the right thing to do.”
What’s amazing is their hope for mankind. Just like Anne Frank, they believed that inside each person is a good heart, and that there will be a brighter future if we all just work towards it. And overall, they just want their stories told. It is only through the details of this historical event and each survivor’s own testimonies, that the rest of us realize that it could also happen to us.
To donate to the Survivor Mitzvah Project, you can:
• Donate online at: www.survivormitzvah.org where you can also learn more about SMP
• Text the word GIVING to 41444, or
• Send a check to:
The Survivor Mitzvah Project
2658 Griffith Park Blvd. Suite #299
Los Angeles, CA 90039