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December 1, 2011 3:49 PM   Subscribe

"One thing about life in New York: wherever you are, the neighborhood is always changing. An Italian enclave becomes Senegalese; a historically African-American corridor becomes a magnet for white professionals. The accents and rhythms shift; the aromas become spicy or vegetal. The transition is sometimes smooth, sometimes bumpy. But there is a sense of loss among the people left behind, wondering what happened to the neighborhood they once thought of as their own." For Sophia Goldberg (98), Holocaust survivor, change has meant the end of a way of life.
posted by zarq (34 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
"About half of America’s remaining Nazi victims — defined as people who lived in a country under Nazi rule and who directly suffered persecution — or approximately 38,000 people, live in the New York area, down from 55,000 in 2002."

Selfhelp is mentioned and linked in the main article, but I think it's worth pointing out here, too: They were founded in 1936, and their Nazi Victims Services Program serves the unique needs of a dwindling community -- the largest in North America -- living in New York City and Nassau County. Also worth noting, thousands of the remaining survivors living in the New York metropolitan area are destitute, with over 4,000 classified by Selfhelp as "near poor" and more than 15,000 others living below the federal poverty line.
posted by zarq at 3:50 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Maybe I'm subconsciously vying for a late nomination for 2011 "Asshole of the Year", but outside of the 84-year-old Ms. Schwarzmann and 78-year-old Robin Hu, these people and especially Sophia Goldberg sound really unpleasant. And I can't help but hear an unspoken something about the repeated complaints about 'Korean and Chinese' residents which... well, let's say it's very unbecoming of a holocaust survivor.

And not to belittle their complaints or disregard the special challenges of that past, but if you're 98, you should have long since made your peace with the fact that your friends and familiar faces will disappear, and soon you will too with all your memories. That's true of everyone of that age, regardless of what happened to them during WWII.
posted by hincandenza at 4:13 PM on December 1, 2011 [13 favorites]


if you're 98, you should have long since made your peace with the fact that your friends and familiar faces will disappear,

I would say making that sort of peace is decidedly uncommon, and certainly we shouldn't expect a Holocaust survivor to be somehow more noble than any other old person, as though having a terrible experience somehow necessarily makes you a better person.

In fact, I think the experience of aging, watching the world change, feeling yourself grow frail and sick, and watching everyone you love die is a pretty awful one, which may help explain why the rates of depression and suicide are so high among the elderly. I don't forgive them for their sometimes poor behavior -- unless it is out of their control, due to something like dementia -- but I try to have compassion for their circumstance. Especially as one day I will likely share it.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 4:26 PM on December 1, 2011 [12 favorites]


And not to belittle their complaints or disregard the special challenges of that past, but if you're 98, you should have long since made your peace with the fact that your friends and familiar faces will disappear, and soon you will too with all your memories.

Harsh, dude. Everyone thinks that people change as they get older, but they don't really. What I mean is, it's just the same as anything else: To feel yourself to be alone in the world, living among people whom you don't understand and who don't care about you is not less sad, no less bitter and lonely, at 98 as it would be at 38. It's not their fault for not being wise enough or Bhuddist enough to accept their solitude with equanimity. Most people wouldn't.
posted by Diablevert at 4:40 PM on December 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


hincandenza, have you read Maus? It's a very fast and painfully moving read. I came in here to note how much this article reminded me of Art Speigelman's depiction of his father, the narrator of his own story, who lived through the Holocaust as a young man.

Mr. Speigelman was not a kindly old man. He was a cranky old racist who didn't take his son seriously, even though he did his best to help and love him. The rough depiction made Holocaust survivors extraordinarily human to me when I read it at a young age, alone in a rural state. This article, too, is deeply humanizing. I would rather know these people as tired, tiring, cranky old Eastern Europeans than as delicate lavender memories of people who were so very strong and brave.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:45 PM on December 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


Being the survivor of a fucking genocide doesn't suddenly grant you an insight into the human spirit few possess. Or, rather, it does, and what you see is ugly and horrible and capable of imposing great suffering and you have no choice but to steel yourself against it. How many people exposed to abuse early in their life end up being abusive people themselves? Why should Holocaust survivors be any different. They are human beings to whom the utmost nadir of what man can do to man was shown and done to them. If the average person cannot make peace, it is much, much harder for them. They live knowing how well distrust of the new could have served them, and what happened to their friends and family who trusted the cattle cars and work camps and showers.
posted by griphus at 4:50 PM on December 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


Yes, New York is a city of Neighborhoods. Since people walk we get to know eachother, I see the same people every day. I can get credit at the newsstand, The guy at the deli knows how I take my coffee. You see the same people at the store and sometimes pass the time. In some neighborhoods people sit on the stoop in the summer, just like the porch used to be in the small towns of the past.

She is just no longer part of the community,as Diablevert says she is alone, among strangers. I think as you get older you need community more, not less. She no longer belongs, every relationship with her fellow human beings is gone.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:57 PM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


I believe it was Bettie Davis who said Getting Old is not for Sissies. I am on my way to
83 and I think I begin to know what she meant.
posted by Postroad at 5:01 PM on December 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


Maybe I'm subconsciously vying for a late nomination for 2011 "Asshole of the Year", but outside of the 84-year-old Ms. Schwarzmann and 78-year-old Robin Hu, these people and especially Sophia Goldberg sound really unpleasant.

I don't know that they are "unpleasant" but just old and alone.

I don't know how familiar you are with New York's neighborhoods, but not too long ago, when I was a kid, going to the Jewish(and Italian and Polish) neighborhoods was like going to a different country. All the signs, businesses, chatter on the street was all geared around one way of life.

I can imagine that watching that disappear before your eyes, barely able to have a proper synagogue service, left only with your memories. I can imagine that'd be pretty damn depressing.
posted by madajb at 5:04 PM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


The victims of attempted Nazi genocide have unique difficulties and needs. Unusual mental health and trauma issues. In the "nazi program" link to selfhelp's main page in this FPP, if you scroll down you'll find PowerPoint slideshows for talks given at a recent conference regarding caring for elderly survivors. I haven't yet had time to review them, but the ones on 'Transcending Trauma' look particularly enlightening.
posted by zarq at 5:08 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not to mention, people have entire extended families, brothers,sisters , nephews, grandparents, cousins, an entire support network sometimes on the same block. People live for generations, in an entire tiny world of a dozen square blocks. It is like a village, and all that simply dissapears.It makes me sad, and I have plenty of years left to forge new bonds and memories.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:14 PM on December 1, 2011


especially Sophia Goldberg sound really unpleasant

That's it? The lesson we learn from everything she's lived through is that it's a drag to be around her. I can take a guess at how she got there... what's your excuse?
posted by victors at 5:16 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


victors: That's it? The lesson we learn from everything she's lived through is that it's a drag to be around her
Uh, not that she's a drag, but it's sad that she didn't have the same approach as fellow survivor Ms. Schwarzmann, who recognizes that these new faces that aren't Jewish, and aren't survivors, are still people with their own stories and right to live in this world. And honestly, the thing that makes remembering the stories of these people important ( as Ms. Schwarzmann notes) is to keep alive in the mind of the latest generations that hatred and division can go down a very, very dark path and we should all be vigilant to not become those people. And that survivors could function as a sort of aged social guardian, to waggle the finger and remind us "This is how it started with the Germans..." at some seemingly okay toppling of civil liberties or growth of prejudice and division.

I would hope the lessons of surviving the holocaust aren't "I don't like these new people [the Koreans and Chinese], they don't look like my people".

And yes, people are right that there's no magic wand that ensures a Holocaust survivor won't be bitter, cranky, racist, and hateful, that they all have to be magically enlightened. But I would hope 98 years of life would bestow enough wisdom to see the... irony of her statements about Koreans and Chinese living in her building.

Then again, I kind of agree with the below sentiment:
Diablevert: Everyone thinks that people change as they get older, but they don't really. What I mean is, it's just the same as anything else: To feel yourself to be alone in the world, living among people whom you don't understand and who don't care about you is not less sad, no less bitter and lonely, at 98 as it would be at 38. It's not their fault for not being wise enough or Bhuddist enough to accept their solitude with equanimity. Most people wouldn't.
Like Diablevert, I'm not convinced age teaches you anything, and the amazing people you meet who are 80 aren't amazing because they're 80 and wise; when they were 20, 30, and 40 they were amazing. But the 20-year-old asshole is just an asshole of a different stripe should they live to be 80. I guess I'd just hope that surviving something as literally insane as a concentration camp would be a little bit illuminating.
Countess Elena: hincandenza, have you read Maus?
No, but I've always meant to. I've heard it's fantastically moving.
posted by hincandenza at 5:39 PM on December 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Nazi victims — defined as people who lived in a country under Nazi rule and who directly suffered persecution — or 38,000 people

Wow, I had no idea that number was so small (though I'm guessing that 38,000 is half of the total number - 76,000 which is still pretty small). Incidentally, my grandmother qualifies as a Nazi victim though not a Holocaust survivor. Her family got out of Germany an hour after the Nazis seized their passports. (They clearly had an idea this was coming and had a second set of passports for travel specifically to the US.)

Incidentally, my grandmother refuses to admit that she's Jewish. I can grok that - she was bullied and persecuted for it and then had to leave her home at age 14 or be killed because of it. Her older sister went the other way and became Orthodox. When my great-aunt died, my grandmother couldn't bring herself to go to the funeral because it was a Jewish service. She never said it directly, but there was the implication. There was also the moment - for me - of cognitive dissonance where my (to me) atheist grandmother is talking extensively about Jewish funerary practices and I'm internally scratching my head thinking "How does she know all this?" and then... "OH. RIGHT."

Anyhow. The article struck me as a bit odd because... well... my grandmother left Germany at age 14 and she's about to turn 88. The Holocaust survivor community is dwindling simply as a function of linear time - there simply isn't a turnover wherein if a resident of a community building dies another one is available to move in. It would seem the more logical slant for the article is simply that the Holocaust survivor community is vanishing as even the child survivors are now in their late 80s, rather than "Holocaust survivor community is being taken over by other immigrants."
posted by sonika at 5:46 PM on December 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


Thing is, it's hard for people of any age, even the very friendliest and most open-minded, to get over the cultural gap. ESPECIALLY when it comes to living right on top of each other.

I am not holding myself out as some kind of example, God forbid, but I do live in a completely integrated building. Being white myself, I have lived in minority white buildings on many occasions, and certainly minority white neighborhoods, for most of my adult life. At the moment I live in a Mitchell-Lama co-op (middle-income housing; waiting list) in Manhattan. I would say probably 4-5 households out of 220 are your typical white American-born yuppies. Then there are a FEW Holocaust survivors, let's say 5, but the building is overwhelmingly Dominican and African-American.

As it happens, I speak Spanish, and I feel pretty much at home, having lived and worked in the neighborhood for a full decade. But it's not an easy gap for ANYONE to bridge. Old people and survivors shouldn't be held to a higher standard of tolerance than just the average joe.
posted by skbw at 5:55 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


But I would hope 98 years of life would bestow enough wisdom to see the... irony of her statements about Koreans and Chinese living in her building.

Yea, I guess I don't see where you've earned the privilege to presume who should learn what lesson at what point in their lives.

e.g. the irony to call someone unpleasant in such an unpleasant way. When does one learn that one?

the amazing people you meet who are 80 aren't amazing because they're 80 and wise; when they were 20, 30, and 40 they were amazing

Now you're just making this shit up as you go along.
posted by victors at 6:03 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


NEWSFLASH: People die, shit changes and life goes on (just not yours); besides, Anyone in America can live that long thanks to vaccinations and hand-washing. It is not the accomplishment it would be in Sub Saharan Africa or the Bangladeshi floodplain. Apologies to all the mefites of those ethnicities, but you kind of have to agree those places are sub-optimal as neighborhoods.
posted by Renoroc at 6:09 PM on December 1, 2011


It's a bit of a misleading article. The Koreans and Chinese have been in Flushing since the 70s.
posted by cazoo at 6:13 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm related to some people of "old Flushing" who complain of what has become of the neighborhood. It's a little bit understandable, as from what I gather the change is truly drastic. Things they loved are gone. Flushing looks a little bit like Beijing now.

I always got the impression overall that Queen a place of tolerance, but it's sometimes rather grudging, particularly as one population replaces another. In my old neighborhood, Sunnyside, everyone got along peaceably, but if you really dug deeper, there wasn't much of a melting pot. The NYtimes did an article where they asked various groups in Sunnyside about gay marriage...and guess what, some of them were not so crazy about it.

But the diversity itself is attractive to some people (like me). I don't expect to be BFFs with every immigrant group, but I enjoyed all the different cultures, particularly the delicious Korean/Indian/Nepalese/Chinese food.
posted by melissam at 6:18 PM on December 1, 2011


Old people are cranky. They're old and shit kinda sucks. That said, these people sound like okay old people to me, despite what I would consider the article's underhanded attempts to suggest parallels between the Holocaust and the survivors' own racial animus. This, in particular, seems eminently fair:
Though he gets along with his new neighbors, he said, speaking through an interpreter because he does not speak much English, he cannot feel close to them — in part because of the language barrier, but also because of the nature of his experience.

“It’s very difficult to express how we feel,” he said. “Who didn’t live through it doesn’t understand. Like the 25 million people who don’t have food in Africa now, but who understands? Only someone who had this experience. It’s like that.”
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 6:22 PM on December 1, 2011


It's weird that people talk about culture shock when moving to another country as a real thing that affects everyone, no matter how open-minded and pro-diversity, but that if you experience culture shock within your own country, you're somehow anti-diversity and racist.
posted by Bugbread at 6:54 PM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Maybe I'm subconsciously vying for a late nomination for 2011 "Asshole of the Year", but outside of the 84-year-old Ms. Schwarzmann and 78-year-old Robin Hu, these people and especially Sophia Goldberg sound really unpleasant.
What, are they supposed to be there for your entertainment? Why should it matter to them if you find them pleasant? Seems like a very self entitled argument.

If the people can't communicate with each-other in the same language, it's going to feel lonely.

I also don't know why you would expect most people to feel at ease with their own death. I don't think it's all that common.
posted by delmoi at 7:22 PM on December 1, 2011


How could one not realize a way of life is ending when 98 years old? It's ending because ones life is coming to an end, that's all.

I understand the idea behind the Selfhelp Community Services program yet you are moved into a building when your 65, you are old and all you can do is get older, then you are housed with only people of your age and all of them are connected by a horrible event what an awful idea.

Lessons are to be learned here.
posted by pianomover at 8:47 PM on December 1, 2011


I *really* think that people who have been persecuted (as in the holocaust, and various other genocides) have done and gone through things that command veneration from every single one of us lowly humans.

Of the 326 residents in her building, now only 31 are Holocaust survivors, and only 7 of them are German or Austrian.

31 survivors? IN ONE BUILDING? In 2011??? 7 of those people grew up around the area she grew up in in the 1940s? And they are still there in 2011? Im 33, and I the closest person who grew up near me is across the ocean.

But she said: “We do not talk. We say hello, goodbye. But that’s it. They don’t speak German. They don’t speak English. They speak Russian and Chinese. Sometimes they just shake their heads.”

I bet you're one of those old people that would sound ALL surprised at my accent and ask me where I learned english from. I'd shake my head at you too.

“The residents have a saying that when an original resident passes away, it’s a Korean or Chinese couple who moves in,” said Mohini Mishra, program director for the buildings.

You get that head-shaking too, don't you Mohini?

“They can’t get a minyan together,” Ms. Goldberg said, referring to the quorum of 10 men required for traditional Jewish services. “If they didn’t have the Russians, they wouldn’t have a synagogue.”

Ummm...ok. That felt kinda rude to the Russians Jews. You just want your freaking clique and nobody else, huh?

I say, the Chinese people are people too,” Ms. Schwarzman said. “If the American government approved them to come to this country, it’s O.K. You have to respect everyone. People say, ‘Why did the Chinese people come here?’ I say, ‘Why did you come here?’ It’s amazing how people can say, ‘I’m a refugee.’ Maybe they are refugees, too.”

This irks me a lot. So your definition of "ok" is that the gov't approved them? Really, holocaust survivor? I know I'm being hypercritical, but dude...your father and 13 other family peeps were killed by the government for being who they are. Do you STILL think that a government's approval of a person is what is necessary to deem them a person? Dude?!

“But we have to teach young people what it was. The Holocaust cannot be again. It should not be again.”

I *HATE* when people say this. Do you honestly believe that certain governments have NOT tried to eradicate a religious, ethnic, or racial group since WWII? Because then you're just being ignorant. It is still happening.

Survivors often draw a “hierarchy of suffering,” he said, distinguishing their hardships from others’. Even in a diminishing community, there is a tendency to divide into subgroups: Russians from Germans, adult survivors from child survivors, people who survived concentration camps from those who fled ahead of the soldiers.

Ever been to school, college, work, or church? People EVERYWHERE differentiate themselves from others if they have enough of a population. And then when there isn't a large enough population people are all "oh hey...you speak another language too, huh?...lets hang".

Survivors often resist care, he said, because during the Holocaust to admit weakness was to invite death.

Sad. That really sucks that they still live with this mentality. My heart goes out to them.

In the end, I don't know what to say. Sure they aren't perfect...but dude, they LIVED through the holocaust. Maybe its ok for them to hold onto their xenophobia a little. I mean they went through a lot. I dont know what to make of all this in the end.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:18 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think it's a beautiful article. I've been reading this book by Erik Larson called In the Garden of Beasts about an American diplomat and his family in Berlin in the 1930s. I've been thinking a lot about Germany of the 1920s and '30s and the incredible place it was -- such a specific, rich, strange, troubled, brilliant, dysfunctional culture. (I'm no expert, just an occasional reader.) And there were so many turning points where history could have gone in a different direction (maybe) but instead the years and years of genocide... Anyway, memories of that particular time and place are mostly gone now, with the passage of time and the death of generation(s).

Shorter: I like what Pozdnyakov said: “Who didn’t live through it doesn’t understand. Like the 25 million people who don’t have food in Africa now, but who understands? Only someone who had this experience. It’s like that.” There's a reason that the sub-groups of survivors are drawn to one another. And why the new refugees are connected to one another. I think it's fantastic that everyone is co-existing peaceably, even if people aren't bffs.

I also liked the parts about the survivor community managing their memories, and about how their aging process is including the loss of that tool. And also the part about the survival behaviors becoming detrimental in the context of old age.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:09 PM on December 1, 2011


I hope I live to be 98.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:12 PM on December 1, 2011


First, let me preface what I have to say with "Get off my lawn!". There. Last things first.

Too many of you are too young to begin to have a clue. Some of you are old enough to be offended by that statement. See line one.

In 1989 I returned to a place I loved and had known well 20 years earlier. It was a meadow surrounded by forest. Except it was no longer a meadow. Small trees had grown. Where it had been very open, it was now just less heavily forested. The change hurt, if only because I sought the place of my memory, and that place no longer existed. It had nothing to do with people and everything to do with time.

You don't have to involve people to feel the pain of change. But when the change is your neighborhood, what is there but buildings and people? But some change isn't very visible unless you leave for awhile and return. Also, there is no hate involved in the pain of loss.

I've also had the experience of returning to a previously loved neighborhood in Manhattan, but it had become gentrified. All too polished and white, compared to the old and cherished memory. Nothing wrong with all those middle class white folks! Just they weren't the people remembered. Never mind that I'm a middle class white dude.

But my memory of hate is different. Imagine being in a gay neighborhood, and watching the police harass some homeless youths from the vantage of a restaurant. Then the gay waiter explains how these hustlers are bringing down the property values! Forget the fact that homeless gay youths have been a part of that landscape since long before said waiter moved in (this was in West Hollywood in the late 80's). Forget the fact that ending up homeless was still a common experience for too many gay kids. Surely, for a gay youth, jail was a safer place (!) than Santa Monica Boulevard!
posted by Goofyy at 11:40 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is so sad. Chinese, Russian, Korean...these are people who all have older relatives (if not themselves) suffered enormously during World War II and its aftermath.

I wonder how much history these survivors know, whether they have any idea of the extreme shit that happened to other peoples outside the Holocaust.

These people have much more in common than they think.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:59 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I was in high school my class had some sort of scandal happen that involved ethnic slurs (I have no recollection of the details) and as a sort of "this is what happens when you use racist language" cautionary tale they had a Holocaust survivor come talk to us.

This guy launched into his life story, which turned horrible and grueling, and then he got out of the concentration camp, and he told his compatriots that his number one priority was to kill a German. They were getting the heck out of Germany but he felt the need to take one German down on the way. He managed it, as I recall, and told us how great it felt and how satisfying it was to do.

We all left the room thinking, "Whoa." Nobody knew what to say. We'd expected a sort of Museum of Tolerance spiel about how we should all just get along, and what we got instead was...well, I still don't know what to make of it. That feeling of "I'm so completely out of my element ethically and experientially that I can't process whether what I just heard was horrible or totally understandable" definitely will stick with me till the day I die. It was one of the weirder days of high school, tell you that much.
posted by troublesome at 12:31 AM on December 2, 2011 [7 favorites]


While my first reaction to the article was "Yeah, what did you expect?" I think that a lot of the reactions in this thread are really going overboard. There are a couple things that need to take into consideration here...

31 survivors? IN ONE BUILDING? In 2011??? 7 of those people grew up around the area she grew up in in the 1940s? And they are still there in 2011? Im 33, and I the closest person who grew up near me is across the ocean.


The people quoted in the article have watched close, insular communities crumble over recent years. These communities were a refuge from the Holocaust and a buffer from the difficulties of immigration. Watching them crumble is traumatic. Add this to the trauma of the Holocaust - and yes, the effects persist - and I think you have something that is a little bit more complicated than "boy these old people are cranky."

Now, yes, I do think that there are some flaws in the article and the approach, and it might have been better looked at in the context of immigration, neighborhood flux, and whatnot but I think just commenting on the crankiness of those quoted and saying they should be all Zen And The Art of Aging, Holocaust Survivor Edition is missing the point.
posted by entropone at 6:13 AM on December 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is so sad. Chinese, Russian, Korean...these are people who all have older relatives (if not themselves) suffered enormously during World War II and its aftermath.


I mean, yes, it's true, but you're talking about elderly people living in one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world. "Just talk to each other and get along" might be easier to say than it is to do.
posted by entropone at 6:15 AM on December 2, 2011


Thanks so much for posting this. My grandparents were German Holocaust survivors who lived in Flushing when I was a kid. I have vivid memories of visiting them several times a year and of the vibrant community in their building. They weren't religious (actually, my grandfather wasn't Jewish, but that's another [long] story) but I imagine religion was less important than shared culture and experience.

Towards the end of their lives (late 80s, early 90s), the neighborhood had started to change, but as I remember it, my grandparents actually liked the changes. My grandmother loved the bargains in the Asian shopping markets. :)

Also, it's absurd to think that Holocaust survivors would be somehow immune to old-age grumpiness. If anything, I'd think that they would even more value security and stability, especially those who went through it at a young age. And the emotional trauma of the Holocaust doesn't just end with emigration.
posted by lunasol at 7:38 AM on December 2, 2011


One thing about life in New York: I miss it. Every damned day.
posted by Decani at 11:32 AM on December 2, 2011


They were getting the heck out of Germany but he felt the need to take one German down on the way.

A late friend of mine was a survivor. She was German of mixed heritage, but unlike her siblings, she looked the part. So while her brothers ended up in the German army, her parents took her and her sister, out of Germany.

So they wandered and suffered, and then the war ended. They were in a refugee camp in France. And then someone shot her father, dead. After the war. And her mother lost her mind, unable to cope with this final horror.
posted by Goofyy at 12:33 AM on December 3, 2011


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