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At this Hanukkah party, a special zest for life

'Every day is a holiday if we are still here,' says one 93-year-old Holocaust survivor at the Jewish Family Service's Cafe Europa.

December 11, 2012|By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times

The dancing broke out spontaneously.

One moment, a guitarist was performing before more than 200 elderly Jewish people, most of whom looked content to remain in their seats and let the latkes settle. The next, the onlookers were on their feet, clapping to traditional Yiddish songs and forming a human chain that whipped around the tables.

An elderly woman in a sparkling black dress swung her hips in the corner of the room. Eyes closed, she was doing the polka, no partner required. Canes were left hooked on the backs of chairs, and walkers were pushed aside along the wall.

Such was the scene near the end of the Cafe Europa Hanukkah party on Tuesday afternoon. It was a jubilant two hours, full of hugs and kisses between longtime friends. There was next to no mention of what they had in common: They are all Holocaust survivors.

"Every day is a holiday if we are still here," said Sophie Hamburger, 93, after unrolling her sleeve to show the number 74428 tattooed on her left arm.

Officials with the Jewish Family Service and party volunteers said they are in awe of the survivors' zest for life. The service organization's Cafe Europa program serves as a social support group for survivors, who get together monthly for plays, outings, dinner or educational sessions. They usually meet in two groups, but on Tuesday, all members congregated at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. They had a kosher lunch, saw a children's musical performance and danced.

"Holidays are a great time to celebrate life, and these are the people who know how," said Susie Forer-Dehrey, chief operating officer of the organization. "Many of them grew up without parents. Many lost children. The fact that they can come together and celebrate Hanukkah is truly a miracle, and Hanukkah is about miracles."

Though many of the survivors said they prefer to think about the present, the future was not lost on Dorothy Greenstein, 82. She said at least two of her friends have died recently. When one survivor passes away, the person never gets replaced, Greenstein said. Each passing holiday, she added, is one to relish.

"We are an endangered species," Greenstein said, then demanded more fried jelly doughnuts for her table.

Though the party was no place to dig up old, horrific memories, some remain etched in the mind: Eva Brettler, a child survivor, now 76, still remembers the smell of her grandmother's bread, which wafted in the air before the first loud knock at the door. She remembers being separated from her mother, then hearing gunshots. She still sees the "mountain of corpses" she witnessed when she was about 8 years old.

She went for a hike Monday morning, and to the gym hours before the party. She applauded loudly for the singing children and swayed to the music in her seat.

Then, like so many of her fellow survivors, she stood up and danced.

She finished, beaming. "Wasn't that fun?" she said.

matt.stevens@latimes.com

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