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A lifeline for Holocaust survivors

Actress and director Zane Buzby's Survivor Mitzvah Project sends funds to impoverished Eastern Europeans.

May 03, 2008|Paloma Esquivel | Times Staff Writer

The letters are simple, full of gratitude and overflowing with history.

"Zane, I received your letter of May 21 on June 13," wrote Sonia, an 89-year-old Ukrainian Holocaust survivor. "I also received the gelt [money] -- thank you very much to everyone."

She continued, "During the war, our family was evacuated to far Siberia. We lived through cruel deprivations; hungry, naked and barefoot we returned home after Kiev was liberated. My father died while in the evacuation, my brother perished at the front. Much time passed before life somehow straightened itself out."

The letter, among hundreds of others, is a thank-you note, from a beneficiary of the Survivor Mitzvah Project, a charity founded by actress and director Zane Buzby that distributes money to impoverished Eastern European survivors of the Holocaust. On Friday, designated Holocaust Remembrance Day, Buzby talked about her life in Hollywood and her new work.

Buzby was born in New York City to Jewish parents who were first-generation Americans. She came to Los Angeles in 1978 as the singer in a rock 'n' roll band and was quickly cast in a role as Jade East, a wild-haired, pill-popping groupie, in "Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke." Then came a series of comedies, such as "National Lampoon's Class Reunion" and "This Is Spinal Tap." In the 1980s, she took up directing television sitcoms.

Buzby, who is vague about her age, has long, curly auburn hair that flows loosely around her face in a style that isn't too different from the one she wore 30 years ago. She speaks quickly and passionately, constantly leaning forward and gesturing with her hands.

The project started seven years ago when Buzby went to Eastern Europe to visit her grandmother's hometown, which she thought was in Lithuania but turned out to be in Belarus.

As she rearranged her plans and waited for a new visa, she met a language professor who gave her a list of eight Holocaust survivors living in Belarus and asked her to visit them.

"They're lonely, they're forgotten," he told her.

At the first home, she found a man digging for potatoes in the field behind his small house. He hoped he could get them all dug up before winter set in.

"That's all they eat," Buzby said. "No nutrition."

Back home, she couldn't stop thinking about winter. "How are they going to make it?" she thought.

Her first gift was simple. She took eight $20 bills, folded each inside some heart-shaped paper and mailed them to the people she'd met.

The project grew quickly, funded mostly by Buzby's own money and a few friends. The project, which hopes to secure nonprofit status in a few months, has distributed about $350,000 so far through two nonprofit groups, Mazon and Vilnius Yiddish Institute.

Buzby asked recipients to write letters, to make sure the money was getting into the right hands. She asked them to tell her about their survival. When she received the letters, most of which were in Russian, she would locate Russian-speaking repairmen working in her neighborhood and ask them to translate.

"I received your letter from Nov. 2, 2004, and everything was delivered intact. I am very grateful to you for your help," wrote a Ukrainian woman named Anna. She continued:

"On Aug. 12, 1941, we had to flee from the Nazis because they were moving very fast toward us. Our father gathered all of us (there were 4 sisters - three of them have already died and I am left alone). We had to cross the Dneiper River, the Don, and the Volga -- three big rivers. All those who did not move with us died.

"From my village, on Sept 16 1941, in one day, 1,785 were shot. We had a big Jewish region and in total in this region the Nazis killed 15,000 people. In the village of Bobrovy Kut, and other villages, the Nazis threw live people into the wells."

The letters, many of which can be read at the organization's website,, show how survivors struggle with difficulties beyond the sometimes desperate poverty suffered by many in Eastern Europe, Buzby said.

"We're talking about people whose entire communities were destroyed. Everything was taken from them. There is no aunt, no grandmother, no sister to ask for help."

Buzby sometimes veers into the language of television solicitors as she talks about her project, saying things like for "a dollar a day you can change someone's life" and "it's so easy to help." She isn't beyond using guilt to solicit donations. When a potential donor calls, she says to him, "You don't want to be the richest man in the graveyard, do you?"

The money isn't overwhelming. Sometimes it's enough for food. Sometimes it's been enough for washing machines, diabetic testing strips, walkers, arthritic cream and Excedrin -- and to pay for multiple cataract surgeries. It is, she says, her contribution to the world.

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