ST. PETERSBURG — Helen Kahan arrived in Auschwitz on her 20th birthday. Her mother, little brother and sister were sent directly to the gas chamber. Over the next several months, she and one of her sisters were booted from work camp to work camp. They survived only by escaping during a death march in the spring of 1945.
"We could see on the side of the streets the dead corpses," said Kahan, 85.
Sixty-plus years later, Kahan and other Holocaust survivors from throughout Pinellas and Hillsborough get together once or twice a year for events sponsored by Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services. Mostly they chat, show off family pictures and celebrate the holidays. Tuesday, more than 60 of them gathered at Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg for an early Passover meal.
"It's a happiness that we're alive and we are here," said Kahan, who lives in Seminole and spends much of her time volunteering in the Jewish community. "Even when we get together, very little do we talk about the Holocaust."
Their experience binds them, said Maya Lazarus, a facilitator for Holocaust survivor support groups. Some escaped the Soviet Union as it was invaded by the Nazis. Many were in concentration and work camps like Kahan. Almost all lost family at the hands of the Nazis.
But it also isolates them.
"It helps them to be with their own kind to give them support," Lazarus said.
Passover, which is actually celebrated in three weeks, commemorates the Israelites' deliverance from slavery and exodus from Egypt.
Coming together for Passover is especially comforting for the Holocaust survivors, Lazarus said. Many remember hiding because Hitler often escalated killings on Passover and other holidays, she said.
Though many relish this annual event, Gulf Coast program director Joe Lallanilla said it may be the last year that the nonprofit will be able to sponsor it.
"Donations are way, way, way down," Lallanilla said.
It costs about $2,500 to provide the meal, transportation and goody bags, with grape juice, unleavened bread and macaroons. Gulf Coast resources must go first to core services, he said.
For some, the Passover get-together is an opportunity to see and meet those who went through similar experiences as the numbers of survivors dwindle.
"There aren't many of us left, you know," said Hans Krieger, 86, of Dunedin, a survivor who later joined the U.S. Army and liberated a concentration camp.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.