Crises like pandemics and natural disasters can trigger Holocaust survivors’ painful memories, fear, and a sense of powerlessness. This may awaken post-traumatic stress symptoms caused by the survivors’ trauma history. These types of triggers are inevitable and are often difficult to handle.
As part of the Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Service’s disaster response, we provide Person-Centered, Trauma-Informed (PCTI) emergency preparedness care to Holocaust survivors by understanding their symptoms in the context of their life experiences and cultures. Funded by The Jewish Federations of North America Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care, our emergency preparedness program was created with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s six guiding principles of trauma-informed care in mind.
Providing a safe physical and emotional atmosphere is imperative when serving Holocaust survivors. Survivors should feel respected and a sense of security.
In order to effectively ensure that our Holocaust survivor clients feel safe, all staff receive a training about providing PCTI care, Holocaust history, and potential triggers.
In 2019, we created the hurricane preparedness training to help Holocaust survivors feel safe during the Florida hurricane season. Our Russian-speaking PCTI director and PCTI program assistant delivered the training to Holocaust survivors in both Russian and English. They discussed how to develop an emergency plan and the importance of being prepared. This one-on-one training allowed Holocaust survivors to feel safe asking questions about procedures.
Post-training surveys reported that 100% of the survivors gained a greater knowledge and understanding about hurricane preparedness. They also reported feeling less anxious.
Our agency makes automatic telephone calls in English and Russian to vulnerable clients during emergencies, such as hurricanes, to provide information about how to acquire assistance during an emergency. Vulnerable clients are prompted to call their case manager with any questions or concerns.
In order to build trust, service providers must understand what is necessary for Holocaust survivors to feel safe. Many Holocaust survivors feel that the world betrayed their trust in humanity.
As they age, they must depend on others for care and find some way to trust again. Staff and professional caregivers are required to participate in trainings about PCTI care in Russian and English. These trainings teach employees how to create trusting relationships with Holocaust survivors. One-on-one trainings with professional and family caregivers and Holocaust survivors are available to resolve trust issues or other specific problems.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, and before every hurricane, we have maintained the trust of our Holocaust survivors by consistently reaching out to let them know that we are concerned about their well-being.
Whenever possible, we empower Holocaust survivors to make decisions to help them gain a sense of control. We also encourage the caregivers to give Holocaust survivors choices, such as what they want to wear or eat. Holocaust survivors are empowered to choose which activities they would like to participate in during the Russian Club with options including music and art therapy, dance, socialization events, and field trips. Holocaust survivors can also choose between a written or verbal survey as we know that a written survey may trigger the past trauma more. For example, a Holocaust survivor may decline to fill out a written survey because they are afraid that this document can and will be used against them.
At Rales, we conduct hurricane planning with each survivor where we discuss the choices that are available to them and the consequences that they may face with each choice. Our clients feel more confident in their choices if they can talk about their concerns with an experienced, trauma-informed staff member prior to the event.
Full client cooperation and sharing decision-making power is important in helping the survivor feel empowered and connected to the agency. Our Holocaust survivors are offered the option of becoming JFS volunteers. It is important to give Holocaust survivors an opportunity to give back to the agency. Holocaust survivors volunteer to help the PCTI director reach out to other Holocaust survivors who have not participated in programming. They also coordinate Russian Club events. These responsibilities give Holocaust survivors a sense of purpose. The relationships developed through the Russian Club have helped to reduce social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Clients keep in touch with their friends from the club and provide support to one another over the phone. Holocaust survivors also check on staff to remind them of how important they are to their clients.
Empowerment helps Holocaust survivors feel stronger and more confident. Some Holocaust survivors feel validated when they educate others about the Holocaust. Many feel validated when they are asked to give advice or provide help. Whenever possible we encourage our Holocaust survivors to be independent and helpful. Our Russian Club volunteer program helps survivors feel needed and in control.
We are aware of the cultural differences between Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors and English-speaking Holocaust survivors, especially with regards to mental health. Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors often refuse to accept mental health support because of the mental health stigma in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). At Rales, we call PCTI sessions “coffee/tea visits” in order to allow our Holocaust survivors to meet comfortably with the PCTI director. We also understand the importance of having Russian-speaking staff that can understand the social norms of Holocaust survivors from the FSU.
The key to cultural sensitivity at Rales JFS is the knowledge and the tools that we provide to staff in order to understand and to value other cultures.
About the Author
Avital Meirzon, MSL, CCTP is the Holocaust Survivor PCTI Care Program Director at Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Service in Boca Raton, Florida and develops, implements, and manages the PCTI Care Program. She created of the PCTI training materials and delivers presentations. Avital is a Certiﬁed Clinical Trauma Professional and provides supportive listening and mental health services to the local Holocaust survivors.
Avital earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Humanities from Bar Ilan University in Israel and her Master of Science in Leadership degree from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, FL. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Avital is personally and professionally committed to trauma-informed care.