Building Trust and Preserving Holocaust Survivors’ Life Stories

By JFCS East Bay


Gennady Mikityansky works with Holocaust survivors and older adults. His programs, through JFCS East Bay, touch the lives of over 160 Holocaust survivors, over 60 older adults with a history of trauma, and over 35 family caregivers. The majority of his Holocaust survivor clients come from the former Soviet Union.

“Of course, all the news stories about what’s happening in Ukraine is triggering their trauma,” Gennady observes. He runs multiple programs and one-on-one conversations with clients to help them calm down, discuss their feelings, and feel better. “Somehow, miraculously, today, we’re keeping them calm,” he says. “Well, as much as possible.”

JFCS East Bay has gained national recognition for its Holocaust survivor programs. The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Center on Aging and Trauma and Center on Holocaust Survivor Care have recognized our agency for the outstanding number and frequency of programs run – a number which Gennady challenges himself to increase every year. JFCS East Bay has even run into problems filling out standardized forms about its programs, because the sheer amount of offerings exceeds the space allotted. “We have to fill out two forms to list all our programs,” Gennady says. “When JFNA wants to teach new grantees how to do it, they give out our phone number.”

This year, JFCS East Bay started a new program called the Book of Life, which is aimed at preserving clients’ remarkable life stories.

“Unfortunately, when people die, the history of their life mostly goes with them,” Gennady says. “From my own childhood, when I asked, my mom and dad didn’t want to talk about their hard memories, and that’s common. So their stories die with them.”

In response, JFCS East Bay is offering clients individual sessions with a professional videographer to ensure their stories get told. The clients are given a list of questions ahead of time so they can choose their own comfort level. They are encouraged to tell the stories they want to preserve.

Clients recall their memories in English, Russian, and Ukrainian. The stories will all eventually be translated. “It’s a huge work,” Gennady says. “Slow, but we’re doing it step by step. Day by day.”

Gennady also runs multiple groups for clients to stay active, which include yoga, tai chi, music club, movie club, poetry, games and puzzles, and individual therapy sessions with a Russian-speaking therapist.

The meetings are a chance for older adults to discuss their feelings, their worries around current events, and to feel more connection to their community. Building trust is an important first step. “In the former Soviet Union,” Gennady explains, “talking about psychology and mental health, or admitting that you met with a therapist, is a huge taboo that you don’t talk about.”

Trust building is slow and steady. “For me, it’s easy,” Gennady laughs. “Not because I’m so nice, but because I’m the son of two Holocaust survivors. I was born and raised in former Soviet Union, which is now Ukraine. I share their history and traditions. I sing their songs, I eat their food. We’re talking in the same language. You cannot lie to people like that – they will feel if you’re a real one or a fake one. If they feel you genuinely care about them, people open their hearts and minds. I believe that’s the only way.”

“Our goal is to help with mental health. When we first started the program, clients came without smiles. They lived very tough lives. But now, when we open the door, they are already smiling and talking.”