A Hollywood television director is helping elderly Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the effort began informally with a chance meeting in Eastern Europe.
Zane Buzby got her start in Hollywood as an actress, appearing in films and television series. Then she became a director of television comedies.
But curiosity attracted her to another part of the world. In 2001, she decided to visit the towns where her grandparents had lived in Belarus and Lithuania. On her way, she stopped in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where she met linguist Dovid Katz, research director at the Yiddish Institute of Vilnius University.
"And he reached in his pocket and he took out a list of eight names and he said, would you mind very much visiting, it's kind of on your way, these eight people? They're very, very old. They're in their 90s. They're Holocaust survivors and they haven't had a visit from anyone, and it would be a really great thing for you to go visit them. I said, absolutely," she said.
She paid visits to the elderly people, brought them Yiddish-language newspapers, did some shopping for them and left them money.
After returning to Hollywood, she sent letters and cash. "Meanwhile this professor, Dovid Katz from Vilnius University, kept sending me more names of people and more names, and the list grew from eight to 30 to 80 to 150 to 200, 300, 400, 500 - now it's over 800 people, and there are probably thousands."
She says throughout Eastern Europe, there are elderly survivors of the Jewish villages or shtetls that were destroyed by the Nazis.
What began as a personal effort grew into a charity called the Survivor Mitzvah Project - mitzvah being the Hebrew word for good deed. It is a volunteer endeavor that sends financial aid to holocaust survivors in countries that include Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Slovakia, Ukraine and Moldova.
Buzby says many recipients have survived years of hardship. The oldest lived through World War I as children, survived famine in the 1930s, and the Nazi killing squads of World War II. Some were arrested in Soviet times and spent time in gulags, forced labor camps.
"Now they may be the only Jew in their town or village. They may be the sole survivor of the killing fields. They may have been a partisan in the forest of Belarus when they were a teenager. They're all alone, without anyone, without a family. And they're the last people who experienced this," she said.
The survivor Mitzvah Project has no paid staff or offices. It gets word out over the Internet, and channels its aid through larger Jewish charities. Buzby says it is an example of what she calls social entrepreneuring.
"It's very interesting to live in this global world, where people are saying, oh, there's a problem. Let's try to fix that, without government intervention and big corporations or anything, just people on a grassroots level trying to do some good in this world. So the Survivor Mitzvah Project is really social entrepreneuring. I didn't know that when we started it, but now I know it," she said.
She says the project has created bonds of friendship between its American supporters and elderly survivors of the Nazi Holocaust in Eastern Europe.