Where Are They Now: Three Stories of Rescue

May 13, 2019

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A public health advocate in Sarajevo, a retired Wall Street banker in New York, and a Holocaust survivor in Kharkov might seem to have little in common, but Nela Hasic, Claus Hirsch, and Meri Zegelman are linked by something ineffable and profound: All three are among the more than one million Jews rescued by JDC and its partners since 1914.

A Bosnian Jew, Hasic was living with her husband and two children in Sarajevo in 1992 when the four-year siege of that Balkan capital began. The Jewish community, operating in partnership with JDC, gave her just an hour to get to the airport and get on an emergency flight evacuating the city’s Jews to safety in Belgrade.

“It’s a big question: Would my family even be alive without JDC? Growing up, I knew that the Joint provided this, or helped us with that, but I didn’t really know what JDC was,” Hasic said. “Now, I know I’d never be where I am today without JDC. If I say that I’m blessed or lucky, it’s not enough.”

After 10 years in Israel, Hasic and her family returned to Sarajevo, where she joined JDC and helped launch the Women’s Health Empowerment Program (WHEP), which provides psychosocial support, mobile mammogram units, free aid packages, and more to breast cancer patients and survivors in the Balkans.

After 15 years, Hasic launched an independent NGO, ThinkPink, which continues the work and was among the first recipients of JDC’s new Tikkun in Action grants rewarding projects inspired by Jewish values that strengthen civil society and serve marginalized populations.

Nearly 80 years ago, Claus Hirsch and his family were living in Berlin, struggling to survive during the Holocaust. As countries broke off diplomatic relations with Germany one-by-one, there was soon only one place left to go: Shanghai, China.

The family lived there for seven years before coming to the United States, and Hirsch credits a JDC-sponsored soup kitchen with saving their lives.

“We saw firsthand what JDC is capable of and what it does for Jews in need. The most important thing was that they fed us,” said Hirsch, who retired from a career in finance 10 years ago and has been volunteering once a week for the JDC Archives ever since. “JDC keeps people alive. What more can I say?”

JDC is in the business of modern miracles, too.

When war broke out in 2014 in eastern Ukraine, Holocaust survivors Meri and Leonid Zegelman had to flee their hometown of Lugansk, leaving with just two small suitcases for what they thought would be a week or two in evacuation.

When it became clear their relocation to Kharkov would be permanent, JDC staff provided food, medicine, and psychosocial support, helping the Zegelmans rent and get settled into a new apartment.

LIFE FELT LIKE IT HAD COLLAPSED FOR US, BUT IN KHARKOV, WE IMMEDIATELY FOUND LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE AT JDC. THANKS TO THEM, WE KNOW WE’RE NOT ALONE.

“Life felt like it had collapsed for us, but in Kharkov, we immediately found likeminded people at JDC. Thanks to them, we know we’re not alone, and we know where to turn to when we need help,” Meri said. “This helped us not fall into despair during such a difficult time. Thanks to JDC, we still feel like Jews and we still feel needed.”

Meri has become a Warm Homes volunteer in Kharkov, gathering other elderly Jews together for food, conversation, Jewish holiday celebrations, and more. She’s become a crown jewel of the city’s Jewish community, said Lily Krichevskaya, a volunteer at the city’s JDCsupported Hesed social welfare center.

“Meri is a true motion machine, a source of energy, joy, and optimism for everyone,” she said. “If you hadn’t asked me now, I wouldn’t even remember that JDC rescued Meri during the conflict. She’s just a member of our community, like a relative, and a very important person for me. It’s thanks to people like her that we’re able to keep a community.”

For Hasic, it’s humbling and a little remarkable that the same organization has played such a profound role in her family’s story through the generations.

“I can’t imagine the Jewish world without JDC. I tell my story from the ‘90s, others tell their story from the ‘40s, and my father would tell you a story of JDC helping him send his kids to summer camp,” she said. “JDC touches the lives of so many Jews and non-Jews that it’s really essential. It’s like the Red Cross. It’s part of the system of how the world is able to function.”

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