That’s how Zane Buzby created connections with strangers she’s never met, in places she’s never been, to meet people whose language she doesn’t speak.
The television director traveled to Eastern Europe during a break from shooting in 2001 to trace her family’s roots. Before she left, a professor she knew in Lithuania gave her eight names of elderly Holocaust survivors living in Lithuania and Belarus — where she was going — and encouraged her to meet them.
When she got to their homes, she greeted them with a “Shalom aleichem” and created an instant connection.
That trip changed her life.
“It was really like entering a different world and going back in time,” recalled Buzby, who has directed episodes of Golden Girls and Married… with Children. “It was so different from anything I’d ever experienced. There were no cars, no restaurants, crooked little houses, bullet holes everywhere, old wooden synagogues barely standing, entire villages empty and rotting away. It just made the war, the Holocaust, seem so close because I was passing those same rivers and going down those same streets and going through those same forests where so many people died and so many people fought and so many people hid.”
She met Holocaust survivors in towns she didn’t know still existed. They were living in poor conditions, in huts that were in dire need of repair — but there was no one to repair them. They also needed medical attention but had no local resources. Buzby was shocked.
“You just don’t think about it,” she said. “You think they all came to the United States or Israel or other countries. But so many people got stuck there when the Iron Curtain fell, and these people were so ill and so isolated and so alone and so poor. I mean in their 80s and 90s, they were on their hands and knees digging up potatoes before the ground froze so they would have a winter food supply. Their situation was just absolutely desperate.”
Still, they opened their doors to Buzby, who spoke to them with the help of a translator, and were kind to her.
On her return to New York, she decided to do something for these people she’d met. At first, she thought she’d donate to a charity dedicated to Eastern European survivors. But there was no such charity. So Buzby got to work, and the Survivor Mitzvah Project was born.
Today, the charity provides aid to more than 2,000 survivors in eight countries.
“Almost 15 years later, there’s still no organization doing what we do, which is basically giving them direct and continuous financial aid so that they can get food, medicine, heat and shelter,” Buzby said. “And along the way we give them friendship and kindness and compassion and hope. These are all things they haven’t gotten before because they’ve been so isolated.”
They’re the “unluckiest generation,” Buzby said, noting that some survived the Holocaust but then were placed in the Gulag for 10 years or lost their resources during Perestroika.
“They’re pretty much still suffering over 75 years after the start of the war, aging in place without Medicare, health insurance, Social Security, assisted living — none of those support systems that we have for the elderly here,” she added. “They’re still out there waiting for someone to know they’re alive.”
One hundred percent of the donations to the Survivor Mitzvah Project go to survivors.
In 2014, Buzby was named a CNN Hero for her work. On March 30, she was given a Deborah Award at the Anti-Defamation League’s annual Women of Achievement dinner in Beverly Hills.
In 2016, she released The Last Survivors – Echoes from the Holocaust, a nearly hour-long film of a theatrical presentation that had been filmed live at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance. The presentation included footage from Buzby’s travels and Lainie Kazan, Ed Asner, Frances Fisher, Elliott Gould, Valerie Harper and others reading letters from Survivor Mitzvah Project clients.
The letters tell stories of young women who ran away and became partisan fighters; lovers who escaped the ghetto the night before it was liquidated and then were separated and never saw each other again; and children who lost their entire families.
The actors read the messages of loss and loneliness but also messages of thanks and hope.
Buzby has toured the country to show the film, introduce audiences to the survivors’ stories and encourage them to donate. She will be at the Siegel Jewish Community Center auditorium in Wilmington, Del., at 2 p.m. on April 9 to show the film and hold a Q&A.
For her, starting the Survivor Mitzvah Project was an unexpected result of her initial trip.
“I couldn’t find what I came looking for, but sometimes when you’re looking for something, you find something else so that’s really what happened,” she said. “I never expected I would come back and open a charity but there was just an incredible, incredible need. And once you’ve seen it with your own eyes, you just can’t turn away.
“We really want to make sure that no survivor of the Holocaust who’s experienced these darkest days of human history will ever suffer again or be hungry or neglected or forgotten,” she said.
To learn more about the Survivor Mitzvah Project, visit survivormitzvah.org.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740