True Blue Help for Holocaust Survivors

Executive Director Masha Pearl, left, and Sharon Cohen
Courtesy photos
Executive Director Masha Pearl, left, and Sharon Cohen

By Amy Forman

Published January 30, 2014, issue of January 30, 2014.

When Sharon Cohen first heard about Blue Card, it was as if a bolt of lighting had struck.

Blue Card is the only national organization in the U.S. devoted solely to helping needy Holocaust survivors. As Cohen learned, about one-third of the 75,000 Holocaust survivors residing in the U.S. live below poverty level. Last year, Blue Card provided financial assistance to more than 2,000 survivors in need, including 50 in the Greater Boston area.

“I didn’t know so many survivors were poor,” said Cohen of Cambridge, now a Blue Card board member.

“When I heard about the poverty, I knew that I had to become involved. This is as important of a Jewish mitzvah as visiting the sick and burying the dead.”

Started in 1934 by the German Jewish community to help Jews affected by Nazi restrictions, Blue Card (the name comes from the blue paper cards that were originally stamped for donors) was reestablished in 1939 in the United States to aid refugees of Nazi persecution. As refugees age, their needs tend to increase. By its very nature, Blue Card is racing against time.

“Any way we can help, we want to,” said Cohen, a former marketing executive with an impressive history of involvement in human rights causes. The first female officer of Reebok Inter­national, Cohen was the architect of the Reebok Human Rights Program, a founder of the human rights media organization WITNESS, and has been involved with numerous like-minded organizations. While those worthwhile causes often take a long time to make a difference, Blue Card is able to provide immediate help to those in need, she said, adding that even small sums of money can make a big difference to the needy.

According to Executive Director Masha Pearl, Blue Card provides direct financial assistance to survivors to help with housing and transportation via a monthly stipend program, and also is a national provider of lifesaving technology known as the “panic button,” which can be programmed to operate in a person’s native language to help in an emergency. Working with social service agencies across the country, Blue Card identifies those in need and works to provide what is most necessary on an individual basis, quickly and with a minimum of red tape. Blue Card also provides small stipends for birthdays and Jewish holidays.

“Many live very close to the poverty line, and rely on [support from Blue Card] to get by. We provide help of last resort,” Pearl said, adding that the organization “works to maintain dignity and help [refugees] live out their final years with comfort.”

“Survivors won’t be with us forever,” she reminded. “It is very important to give back to them now because they have suffered so much.”

With a very small staff in New York, Blue Card relies on a large contingent of volunteers, many of whom have relatives who are survivors or victims of Nazi persecution, to help fundraise or even make hospital visits. Sharon Cohen, who has no such immediate ties, was moved to help the organization by educating those who have not heard of Blue Card, identifying more victims in need, and attracting more donors.

“We have wonderful programming for Holocaust survivors in the Boston area,” she said. “But we have to think about the survivors that can’t afford to turn the heat up. We want to be there for them. We have to find them and help them. A few hundred dollars a month can really make a difference for them.”

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