Holocaust Survivors find Community in Café Europa

February 05, 2016
By Lauren Greenberg

Each month, JFCS East Bay’s conference room transforms into a vivacious center of cultural and intergenerational exchange for Café Europa. Café Europa brings dozens of Holocaust survivors, their family, and friends together for lively educational and social programs, providing an essential community that our clients count on. I had a delightful experience participating in a recent Café Europa lunch and film screening.

“You know, you can find my story on YouTube,” offered Pauline, a spirited woman sitting across from me with her husband of more than forty years, Sol. “We met on a beach in Brooklyn and I gave him my number.”

“And look what happened!” said Sol, winking at me. I learned that Pauline left Poland for the U.S. in 1936 after being hidden with her sister as children by relatives. They lost their parents in the Holocaust.

Anna sat next to me and I noticed a faded five-digit tattoo on her wrist. She gently tapped my shoulder to share that her grandson was “in Cape Town studying business,” nodding her head approvingly.

“How exciting, Anna!” said Rita Clancy, Director of Adult Services, continuing the conversation in Russian. They have known each other since Rita joined JFCS East Bay a decade ago.

When asked what she enjoys most about Café Europa, Rita responded that she’s moved by “all the different countries people have come from,” pausing thoughtfully, “and that we can provide a space for people who have remade their lives many times over. That’s special.”

I soon learned what she meant.

Our Café Europa coordinator, Jean Tokarek, who has worked in geriatric care management for twenty-five years, facilitated introductions. “Let’s do first and last names—I find last names so interesting—and also the country you were born in,” using her own as an example.

There was Louis from Holland, who used to give Rene from Paris rides into San Francisco. There was Stan from Poland, who preferred to use his Yiddish name. Others were from Belgium and the former Soviet Union, and a few were even joined by their adult children—born in Brooklyn then resettled in California.

Once everyone had spoken and hot tea was served, I dimmed the lights and projected Hava Nagila: The Movie in front of the room. Throughout the film, kitschy jokes about whether gefilte fish or the Hava Nagila was more Jewish and scenes of Larry David’s irreverence caused everyone in the room to chuckle instantaneously. It was a laugh that signaled shared experience and comfort, of having that profound need to be part of a community being met. It’s what compassion in action looks like.

—Lauren Greenberg, Marketing & Development Assistant

If you know a survivor in the Berkeley or Walnut Creek area who might be interested in attending Café Europa, please contact Jean Tokarek at (510) 558-7800, ext. 317 or Rita Clancy at (925) 927-2000, ext. 257.