I volunteer for Little Brother’s Friends of the Elderly, a group created in France during World War II in hopes of uniting elders who have lost family, with young children who also lost family. Now in several US cities, the goal of LBFE (www.littlebrotherssf.org) is to match volunteers with an elder, especially those who live alone, have no family, or the family lives at a distance.
I volunteered to drive DeDe (above) to the St. Patrick’s Day party and be her companion during the day. Besides eating, drinking (coffee), listening to the entertainment, and playing bingo, we gossiped with other elders, met John a voracious reader, mainly of historical events, and all decided that the San Francisco bay area was the place to live.
So many people gave of their time and energy. The entertainment and the staff cajoled and sang, and acted as waiters and waitresses. Seth Augustine, Program director, coordinated the go-to party of the day.
But DeDe proved to be the prize of the day as she unfolded her life’s story. Born in Austria, she learned to ski young, not a surprise. She loved skiing and biking, but especially swimming. She still swims an hour a day at 91. She was a Holocaust survivor. While riding her bike one day in Nice, France, her mother, who refused to leave, was taken–and never seen or heard from again. Imagining her mother dying in the “showers” gave her nightmares. Her father had died when she was nine and before the terror began. She traveled throughout Europe and did odd jobs meeting wonderful and helpful people along the way, and learning four languages fluently: English, French, Spanish, and Germain. DeDe settled into a home as a caretaker at eighteen back in Nice, but was captured toward the end of the war and brought to a camp in Portugal.
I never knew that some of the countries had their own little Nazi camps. DeDe could speak fluent Spanish and would talk to the guards, who later, let her walk about the tiny town. While walking in town she asked some men to help her escape, explaining her story. They did, and she headed north. Later, she wrote her Aunt in America, but people in Austria were not allowed visas, so she immigrated to Montreal, but hated the cold. Visiting her aunt in NY, she knew one day she would come back to America. Many years later, after going back, once again to Nice, she came to NY and met a man from San Francisco. One daughter, and one lifetime later, she continues to reside in her apartment of twenty-something years. She likes going to the Friends of the Elderly parties and meeting all the young volunteers and other elders.
I felt touched meeting her. Although I’m not a Bingo fan and the cacophony of singing-with-the singer usually curls my skin, I loved every moment of the day. It took some effort to open DeDe up, and her hearing impeded some understanding of my questions, but once the background noise stopped and we sat head to head, her words flowed into her life stories. Wonderful.