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How We Make a Difference - August 2005

Born in a small Ukrainian town in the early 1900’s, Syla learn to speak German for her neighbors.  This was rare among Jewish girls at the time, and would eventually save her own life, and the lives of countless others.  In 1941, Hitler's army occupied Ukraine and Einsatzgruppen, the Nazis' mobile killing squads, went from shtetl to shtetl in Ukraine and Belarus - murdering nearly every Jew they found. Speaking German without any trace of an accent, Syla managed to convince the occupiers that she and her three children were German. So the Germans gave her amnesty.

Syla often opened her home to Einsatzgruppen officers passing through. Serving food and beer, she paid close attention as the Nazis boasted about upcoming massacres. Syla created a crude but effective warning system for Jews in neighboring shtetls. Through her two sons—they made regular rounds under the cover of darkness—Syla delivered bags of salt to the doorsteps of Jews targeted for slaughter. Upon seeing the salt, the neighbor knew he and his family had less than 24 hours to flee eastward.

It's impossible to know how many Jewish lives Syla saved. But what is known is that today, she lives in a way that does not do a heroine justice.  Syla is widowed. Two of her three children have died, and she does not have contact with the third. Her dilapidated, two-room hovel in the shtetl of Korostichev has neither electricity nor running water. Due to leg ulcerations and arthritis, she is almost completely immobile; she also suffers from asthma.
Syla has precious little help, and few people on whom she can count.  What she can count on is the consistent arrival of the HesedMobile of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), one of Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey’s overseas partner agencies.  The HesedMobile is a specially-equipped van that delivers life-sustaining materials – including food and supplies – to elderly Jews in more than 2,200 remote locations throughout the Former Soviet Union, including Syla.  It also provides services, such as loaning Jewish books and magazines to clients.  Thanks to the HesedMobile, Syla receives homecare, Meals-on-Wheels, holiday food packages, medication and medical consultations, emergency home repairs, blankets and heating fuel for the bitter winter months.  "I want to thank people like you," Syla said to the volunteer delivering these materials, "for not forgetting people like me."

The HesedMobile reaches each village about once a month.  In each small community, a local volunteer stays in touch with the Hesed, making sure he knows in advance when the van is scheduled to arrive so that he can inform the other Jewish residents.  Sometimes, a HesedMobile travels hundreds of miles to make a single delivery to a lone Jew living in an isolated, far-off village.  In small towns inhabited by several dozen Jews, arrival of the van provides an opportunity for seniors to get together and take part in various activities.  In addition, various outreach organizations operating in the former Soviet Union sometimes “hitch a ride” on the HesedMobile in order to bring educational activities to the periphery.  The HesedMobile is not only an emissary of caring, it is a means of  connecting even the most distant Jew to the entirety of the Jewish world.

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