I leave the sound-stage in a limousine headed for LAX. I am on hiatus, a break from directing sitcoms. I fly to Eastern Europe. My crew flies to Maui. They ride the waves in the Pacific. I ride a horse-drawn hay-cart in Belarus, searching for villages where, a century ago, my grandparents were born.
The Belorussian driver speaks no English. I speak no Russian. I look around. I am back in time 100 years—no cars, no restaurants, bullet holes everywhere, entire villages empty, abandoned, rotting away.
The driver pulls the reigns, stops his horse, points to me, and yells, “Billy Crystal.” I have no idea why. He smiles. I smile. He laughs. I laugh. The horse laughs. We continue on.
And so begins 10 days that change my life forever.
I carry a list in my pocket; eight names from Professor Dovid Katz, a Yiddish scholar in Lithuania, who had traveled across Belarus studying dialects, finding elderly survivors of the Holocaust, ill and alone and in urgent need of help. “The last of the Mohicans,” he calls them. Would I visit?
I hand the driver my list. We journey through the Holocaust as we travel the same streets, cross the same rivers, pass the same forests where thousands hid and were murdered. I knock on doors. The huts are empty. Out back, survivors in their eighties and nineties struggle to dig up potatoes before the ground freezes. They need a winter food supply.
I’m invited into their huts. I hear their stories—fighting as partisans in the forests, hiding underground, fleeing the killing fields, families massacred, escaping the Einsatzgruppen—the mechanized mobile killing squads who roared into towns on motorcycles, killing by the hundreds of thousands every Jewish man, woman and child in their path in the most brutal ways, then torching their villages and moving on to the next town, the next massacre.
Over and over I hear, “The rivers ran red with blood.” “The earth moaned for days in the mass graves.”
Memories so vivid, it is hard to imagine it is over 70 years after the start of The War. And now they were still suffering, isolated, ill, forgotten—lacking food, heat and medicine. It is as if The War had never really ended.
I never imagined this was going on. Weren’t all survivors cared for? Weren’t there Jewish organizations set up just to help them? Could so many people have fallen through the cracks of the assistance net? It would be years of probing before I learned the answer to that last question was, “Yes.”
I return home, to the world of directing sitcoms; one foot in comedy, one foot in the Holocaust. Compelled to help, I start sending money. Then letters. Survivors write back. Litanies of heartbreak and hopelessness. The scope of the Holocaust unfolds in ways I never imagined.
I step up my efforts to help. More expeditions overseas, to find more survivors. Weeks become months, become years. Letters arrive by the hundreds. Connections deepen, friendships are forged. We become closer. More trips overseas discover more survivors in need. I create The Survivor Mitzvah Project. Every day, the list of survivors in need multiplies, and now over 2000 people have been identified in eight countries. And the list continues to grow.
Are there enough people here who will help? I think so. We can mobilize to bring kindness and compassion. Join us. They are the last generation of Holocaust survivors and we are the last generation who can help.
We need everyone to know about this, to get involved. Tell your friends, tell your family. Everyone can save just one life. Together we can write a more hopeful final chapter to the Holocaust, one of friendship, love and kindness.
I went looking for my family and discovered instead a family of strangers. They’re out there waiting.
They’re your family too. To donate, visit: www.survivormitzvah.org
By Zane Buzby