Slava Kulikov says her job is not work, but a pleasure. It’s easy to believe when listening to her speak of her clients with genuine love and unwavering devotion.
Slava is the Coordinator of the Holocaust Survivors Support Program for Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JFCS) of Greater Philadelphia, which provides services funded by the Claims Conference. The program helps Nazi victims with a variety of social services, such as homecare, dental and medical needs, emergency financial assistance, socialization, and transportation. The JFCS of Philadelphia assists approximately 300 Nazi victims. And they are all members of Slava’s family. “I can tell you their names, where they came from, their background and the names of their children and their grandchildren,” she says.
Often, Slava’s clients will turn to her sooner than their own children. Because Slava can take care of it, whatever it may be. It helps that she speaks or understands over five languages and can put them at ease.
Slava understands the feeling of kinship. She bonded instantly with Helen, a Holocaust survivor born 10 km from Slava’s birthplace. They were “landsmen,” neighbors. It didn’t matter that Slava could barely remember the city of her birth. When they met Helen was diabetic and later became blind. For four years JFCS, with Claims Conference funding, helped provide round the clock care for her. Her face would light up whenever Slava came to visit. A couple of months ago she had a stroke and passed away at age 92. Helen’s brother, a year younger, called Slava to say, “Thank you for the time I had with her.” He believed that Helen’s life was lengthened because of the care provided by Slava, JFCS and the Claims Conference.
Slava grew up as a child of Holocaust survivors and was constantly surrounded by survivors. She took the job at JFCS in Philadelphia not knowing what she was getting into. She was born in Wlodzimierz-Wolynski, a part of Ukraine that formerly belonged to Poland, the same town in which her father, born into a wealthy family, lived before being sent to a nearby ghetto and escaping to join the partisans. Her father’s entire family was killed in the war. Slava’s father returned to his old home to find that his neighbors took his family’s vast furniture and artwork collection for their own. Slava never realized how her father must have felt walking into the neighbors’ home to pick Slava up from playing and seeing his parents’ belongings there. Nothing was ever said.
Slava has a childhood memory of visitors coming and everyone going to a field just outside of town. The field was strewn with old shoes and combs and buttons. Everyone stood there and recited the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Only when Slava was older did she learn that the field outside her town was a mass gravesite, the bodies buried beneath where they stood.
Coming to the U.S. in 1970, Slava’s career path was meandering and varied, but she knew she had found a perfect fit as soon as she started at JFCS.
One of Slava’s early clients was a quadriplegic from a stroke years before. The woman’s husband had been her primary caregiver, driving her to day care among other things. As he aged and lost his vision they both needed to be cared for and moved into their daughter’s basement which had easy access without any stairs. But the arrangements needed to be outfitted for the couple and Claims Conference funds allowed JFCS to install a special shower and kitchen so the couple could stay at home.“They are still living in their home,” stresses Slava. “For many survivors this is of utmost importance. They are so scared to leave their homes. Terrified, really. They all have this thing that they cheated death once and now they are facing it again and know they can’t cheat it. So we have to make them feel as pleasant and comfortable as possible.” It is with great pride, and not a little relief, that Slava assures me they have been very successful in being able to keep these survivors in their homes until the end.
An evaluation comes first and then Slava assesses what they need. Most need chore services, or cleaning help, homecare and emergency funds. “They pretty much all live in the same neighborhood,” says Slava. “They’ve been living in their homes for forty or fifty years and the homes have aged with them.”
Slava recently became a grandmother, an event that has her flying high and one that she says brings her even closer to understanding the survivors. “One of my clients, Henry, was 16 when he stood in front of a pit to be shot,” shares Slava. “The officer was called away and he survived, but I asked Henry what went through his mind when he thought he was about to die. Henry said his only thought was that no one would ever know he was on this earth.”
There is one woman Slava has worked with for an especially long time. They began their friendship and she was healthy. Now, she is in the last stages of Parkinsons’ and can barely talk. But yesterday when Slava went to visit, the woman, struggling, whispered, “Without you I wouldn’t be alive.” Slava often feels the same way. It is from the survivors that she learned to be grateful for life, to love every minute of it and grab each moment granted her.