Feature Stories

For Holocaust Survivor, Hesed Alleviates Struggle of Daily Life

When his wife broke her hip and became bedbound, Varlen turned to the Hesed for help taking care of her. “I got medical aid, diapers, and everything I needed to ensure her comfort,” he says.
When his wife broke her hip and became bedbound, Varlen turned to the Hesed for help taking care of her. “I got medical aid, diapers, and everything I needed to ensure her comfort,” he says.

Varlen, 82, can still remember the power of the Nazi’s boot kicking his side before he was sent into forced labor for the German war machine. He was only 13, but his experiences in German-occupied Kiev transformed his adolescence into a daily battle for survival that he still recounts in vivid detail.

He recalls people anxiously fleeing their homes at the outset of the war as onlookers called them deserters. He shares haunting memories of classmates from his Jewish school leaving for Babi Yar—never to return. And after poverty set in, he explains how he made his way to the market with his father’s shoes to barter for a bag of potatoes. For a child born into a family of Russian filmmakers, who grew up on sets absorbed in the magic of moviemaking, the images are still all too real.

“Our family didn’t evacuate the city because we were waiting for my father, who was taken by the Gestapo. But, of course, he never returned. My mom was forced to work until she grew sick. I remained in Kiev, in the care of by my grandmother, until 1943.”

That’s when the Germans picked him up off the street and sent him to work, first within the city and later to Chelm, Poland. He escaped while out collecting firewood and hid in the forest until he was able to make his way back home.

By then the family’s house had been burned to the ground; his mother and grandmother (who were hidden by gentiles) had managed to survive.

“I never thought I would live to age 82. To have lived through occupation still seems unbelievable because of how vicious those times were,” he says.

Today his life is a very different kind of struggle. After a 40-year-long career in safety and risk assessment at a Soviet aviation plant, Varlen had hoped for a pension that would allow him to live out his old age with security and dignity. But the collapse of the Soviet Union left pensioners in far more precarious circumstances.

Like thousands of elderly Jews in Ukraine and throughout the former Soviet Union, Varlen relies on JDC’s Hesed social welfare programs for the vital services and material support that help him stretch his modest pension to the end of each month. These critical services for Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union are generously funded by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Varlen first heard about the Kiev Hesed from his neighbors—fellow Jews in his strong, close-knit community who always celebrate the holidays together and are also part of the Hesed network. When his wife broke her hip and became bedbound, he turned to the Hesed for help taking care of her. “I got medical aid, diapers, and everything I needed to ensure her comfort,” he says.

With Hesed assistance he took care of her for nine years before she passed away several years ago. In the living room corner of the home they shared for 55 years, he keeps a portrait of her with fresh flowers beside it to maintain her memory.

Today Varlen depends on Hesed for his own well-being—services like home care, subsidized medication, and a special debit card for purchasing food at his local supermarket.

“Hesed keeps us alive,” Varlen says. “And that means we can be there for one another and remain a community in our old age.”

Tags for this story: Holocaust Survivors

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