TORONTO — Twenty-five per cent of Holocaust survivors in the United States live below the poverty line, a statistic that Avi Wurman, the Toronto-based president of the Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity (AO), maintained is “totally shocking.”
“The typical number for the equivalent age group is nine per cent,” he said.
This data, which came out of a January 2014 study commissioned by U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to ascertain Holocaust survivors’ needs, led the White House to enlist its first-ever special envoy for Holocaust survivor services.
This, in turn, Wurman explained, led to the co-ordination of a three-year oral health pilot program that is being launched this January in nine North American cities, including Toronto and Montreal.
“Through the Biden-commissioned report,” Wurman said, “it was found that many of these survivors are desperate for oral care, things like dentures or partial dentures, in order to function, to feel good about themselves, or to eat. A lot of survivors lost their teeth because of malnutrition during the Holocaust… And even if they didn’t, many still need care in terms of fillings or basic dental work.”
Henry Schein Cares (HSC) Foundation, an organization that delivers accessible health care and other services to underserved populations and is associated with global dental and medical supply company Henry Schein, has partnered with Alpha Omega, the oldest international dental organization and oldest international Jewish medical association, founded in 1907, to roll out The AO/HSC Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program.
The program will serve cities where Alpha Omega chapters exist and a need has been identified – seven in the United States and two in Canada – and will have dental professionals who are Alpha Omega members volunteer to provide dental treatment for about 250 to 300 Holocaust survivors each year, at no charge.
Although an equivalent study on survivor needs has not been conducted in Canada, Wurman said he’d learned from UJA Federation of Greater Toronto that about 2,500 Holocaust survivors in Toronto have been identified as living below the poverty line.
In Montreal, he said, the need for subsidized health care among Holocaust survivors is also great, especially since the Claims Conference, the international organization that helps Holocaust survivors get reparations from the German government, has, in recent years, expanded its criteria for what constitutes a survivor.
“They decided survivors shouldn’t just be defined as people who lived in concentration camps or ghettos,” Wurman said, “but anyone who had to flee Nazi persecution… Montreal has a Sephardi community of Holocaust survivors that were never previously defined as such – so now, the need there has been expanded.”
In each participating city, patients will be referred by the local social service agencies affiliated with the Jewish community, who will determine an individual’s eligibility for the oral health program based on financial and health needs.
Wurman explained that each city will have an “ambassador” who will liaise between the referring agencies and the volunteering Alpha Omega dentists.
“The Toronto ambassador has already recruited 40 or 50 names of dentists who have volunteered to give care,” he said.
Volunteers include general dentists and specialists including periodontists and endodontists.
On Dec. 18, representatives from The AO/HSC Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program will present the logistics of the program at the White House.
Funding for the project has so far come mostly from private family foundations in the United States, but Wurman stressed that the program is also looking for large donors in Canada.
“Any foundation that is interested in helping Holocaust survivors – a group that deserves help more than any other group I know of – we’d be happy to have them step up,” he said.