FRIENDS FOR LIFE
Anna Ostrowiak and Brenda Senders are more than just good friends. Both born in Poland, they each endured the horrors of the Holocaust and lived to bear witness. That’s what led them to make a commitment to helping other Holocaust survivors, by volunteering at Jewish Community Services. For 12 years, Anna and Brenda were part of the team at JCS’ Behavioral Health Services office in Aventura, working in the Holocaust Survivor Support Program.
Each week, Anna, 88, and Brenda, 87, devoted themselves to assisting fellow survivors by translating and filling out paperwork that allowed the survivors to receive services, pensions and reparations due to them. Often, they would just listen, giving these men and women an opportunity to tell personal stories that Anna and Brenda knew all too well, of the deprivation and devastation they experienced during the darkest chapter of their lives.
THEIR HAUNTING PASTS
Anna lived with her parents, brother and sister in Warsaw until she was 14 years old. When the war broke out the family escaped to a small Polish town called Deblin. The next year, they were rounded up with their fellow Jews and forced to live in a ghetto, where they had little food, no work and disease was rampant. In 1942, Anna’s father was taken away and never seen again.
Soon after, Anna got word that the Germans were planning to kill all the people living in the ghetto and the family managed to escape the mass slaughter. However, they were soon taken to a concentration camp in Czestochowa, Poland, where they labored in a munitions factory until 1945, when the Russians liberated everyone. Anna lived in a displaced persons camp after the war, which is where she met her husband. They came to the United States in 1951, settling in Duluth, Minnesota before eventually retiring to Miami in 1980. Anna’s husband passed away in 1984 and she is now remarried, to another Holocaust survivor.
Brenda’s story is just as harrowing. In 1942, Hitler rounded up all the Jews living in her hometown of Sarny, Poland, and forced them into a ghetto. Brenda, her parents and two sisters and two brothers lived in fear and starvation; Brenda and one of her sisters were the only members of her family to survive. The sisters were separated and Brenda went into hiding at her uncle’s house, secretly serving as a resistance fighter who wielded a rifle from atop her horse.
After a stint in a displaced persons camp after the war, where she married and had a daughter, Brenda also emigrated to the U.S., landing in New York City in 1951 and eventually settling in Washington, D.C. She and her husband retired to Miami in 1989. In 1996, she met Anna at the March of the Living – an annual event dedicated to honoring Holocaust survivors — and the two women have been inseparable ever since.
JCS BECOMES THEIR COMMON CAUSE
“When we started volunteering at JCS,” Brenda remembers, “we were welcomed with open arms. Every day we came in there were people lined up waiting to see us – the invisible people, they were called, because they were poor and had nothing.” Their fellow survivors needed help and that’s exactly what Anna and Brenda provided for them, until Brenda’s failing health wouldn’t allow her to continue.
In recognition of their selflessness and compassion, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation announced Anna and Brenda as the 2012 recipients of their Volunteers of the Year Award, a prestigious honor which they richly deserve. But as these two ladies will tell you, it is an award that belongs not just to them but to all the people like them who endured unspeakable tragedies and survived to tell their tales.
For more information on JCS’ Holocaust Survivor Support Program or any of its comprehensive array of social services and health-related services, please contact JCS Access at 305.576.6550 or visit our website at www.jcsfl.org.