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The Miracle Club

Barbara Bensoussan

You can’t join thisBoroParkseniors group unless you lived in a Nazi-dominated country during WWII. Here are the gripping personal stories of some of its members, and a glimpse at how these elderly ladies are making up for lost time (and even having some plain old fun)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

cakeThere are all sorts of clubs for senior citizens: chess clubs, book clubs, exercise groups. Typically, they’re open to anyone who shares that interest. But it’s the rare senior citizen who qualifies for entry into Club Nissim, housed inBoroPark’s YM-YWHA. The membership requirement is very specific: You have to be a Jew who survived life in a Nazi-dominated country during World War II.

Club Nissim is a fitting moniker for this group, for each and every member owes his or her membership to the neis of having survived the European churban and the zchus of being able to rebuild and thrive on American soil. Funded by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims againstGermany and UJA/Federation ofNew York, the club’s membership officially stands at about 1,200 souls, although in practice only about a third of those are regular attendees, the vast majority of whom are women. 

On this cloudy morning, the group at the Boro Park Y is composed of about 50 women in their eighties and nineties who are, on the surface, indistinguishable from any other elderly ladies you might see onThirteenth Avenue, pinching the tomatoes at the fruit store or sipping soup with a friend in a restaurant. Most are clad in simple, decorous skirts and tops; the general fashion trend runs towards comfortable shoes, short bouffant wigs, and button earrings. The ladies are seated in the club’s meeting room, a classroom-sized space painted an arresting shade of candy pink and ornamented with bulletin boards and blown-up photos of flowers and birds. 

Club Nissim celebrated its tenth anniversary last September, by a strange twist of fate, its opening session was held on the morning of 9/11/2001. “The executive director of the Y told me it was interesting to see the difference in the reactions of the Club Nissim people and the non-survivor seniors who also meet in the Y,” says Simonne Hirschhorn, the club’s director. “She felt the survivors seemed more resilient, that they took the situation more calmly.”

No doubt the Club Nissim participants were simply unsurprised when evil surfaced yet again, having been marked at very tender ages by the depths of man’s inhumanity to man.

“You have to understand,” Simonne says, “that most of our club’s members were children or teenagers during the Holocaust. They never had a normal youth or adolescence. They went from camps or hiding to DP camps; their educations were cut short, and they came here mostly with no family and no money, scrambling to make a life for themselves. One of the women told me, ‘I would’ve married anyone who gave me a piece of bread.’

“For these women, who spent their young years first in traumatizing circumstances and then struggling to rebuild, it’s important to receive permission to relax, to laugh, to think about themselves for a change,” Simonne continues. “We feel we’re empowering them to enjoy life, and continue to grow as individuals. Our ladies are playing catch-up, making up for lost time. This is their time to have fun, to go on trips, and sing in choirs. Fun shouldn’t be a prerogative of the young!”

When Simonne first came on the job in 2002, the club had only six activities per week. Today, there are easily six activities per day — everything from arts and crafts to films to brain-stimulating games to trips to parks and gardens. A series entitled “Doctor’s House Call” features a local physician who comes in to discuss medical conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. A nutritionist also gives regular workshops. 

“We often get 80 women for a shiur, with many of them taking notes,” Simonne says. The schedule also includes regular “Torah Tidbits” lectures and Tehillim sessions, and allows members to attend their family Shabbos and Yom Tov tables armed with their own divrei Torah to contribute.

Last year, the club held a “Bubby Olympics,” complete with a torch parade and gold, silver, and bronze medals for swimming, walking, bowling, and ping pong. Non-athletic competitions included salad-making, speed knitting, and a spelling bee — not bad for women for whom English is a second (or third or fourth) language. “You’re never too old to be young,” Simonne says with conviction.

 

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