Program for Holocaust Survivors and Families marks 25 years by honoring founder, Dr. Charles Silow.
I’m from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.”
That was Dr. Charles “Charley” Silow’s tongue-in-cheek greeting to Ben and Ida Moskowitz. The couple had arrived for the February edition of Café Europa at Prentis Jewish Senior Life (JSL) Apartments in Oak Park.
“So am I,” said a smiling Ben. He appeared to be enjoying an exchange he’d had before with Silow, founding director of Program for Holocaust Survivors and Families (PHSF). It’s a service of JSL, based in West Bloomfield.
Café Europa is among the activities PHSF brings to Holocaust survivors living in Metro Detroit. Risa Berris of Jewish Family Service estimates their number at between 650 and 750, including about 350 Russian-speaking “child” survivors.
“They fled Nazi-occupied areas and went with their families to the East to get away from the Germans,” Silow explained.
The Moskowitzes and other survivors look forward to Café Europa, lively parties offering them entertainment, refreshments and socializing with friends.
“I was clapping the whole time,” survivor Nancy Fordonski said about music provided by Russian keyboardist Yuri Avenasov. “The musician was terrific — out of this world!”
On March 19, Jewish Senior Life will honor Silow and celebrate the program he started 25 years ago to support Holocaust survivors. The Concert of Hope & Unity, an annual fundraiser for PHSF, begins at 7 p.m. in the DIA’s Detroit Film Theater.
Silow’s Early Life
An only child born in Brussels, Silow, 68, grew up “always aware of and recognizing the pain of my parents.”
His mother, Sara Parzenczewska Silow, survived the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Sara, who died in 2008, lost everyone except a great-aunt by marriage she joined in Brussels. His father, Nathan Silow, fled to Russia when the war broke out; he met Sara in Brussels where he had family. Turned out both were from Lodz, Poland. In 2014, their son attended 70th anniversary ceremonies for the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto.
The family eventually settled in St. Louis. Silow attended an Orthodox day school, Epstein Hebrew Academy, through ninth grade.
“My mother always said, ‘So many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust because they were Jewish. We have to continue our Jewish religion and our people,’” said Silow, today the gabbai in charge of ritual and services at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park.
Silow completed high school in University City, Mo., and earned bachelor and M.S.W. degrees at Washington University in St. Louis. Following graduation in 1973, Silow moved to Detroit for work. His parents joined him after his father retired as a Chevrolet autoworker; he died in 1998.
Silow practiced as a clinical social worker at Counseling Associates, then in Southfield, until 1995. In the mid-1980s, he began pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Detroit.
Finding His Life’s Purpose
Silow found his life’s purpose writing his dissertation on the psychological adjustment of Holocaust survivors. More than just troubled by their memories, the 39 survivors in his study showed signs of still feeling traumatized by the personal tragedies they’d experienced almost 50 years after the Holocaust — even those individuals who outwardly seemed well-adjusted. It was a revelation.
“I was determined to immediately start a program to help survivors — to form a caring community, to help them feel they are not alone and they are cared for,” Silow said. “Since I was an intern at Sinai Hospital, I approached my supervisors who heartily encouraged and helped me.”
With his doctorate achieved in 1993, Silow was ready to roll out his program under the auspices of Sinai — then part of the Detroit Medical Center.
Ten years later, when DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital ended its sponsorship, PHSF found a new home with Jewish Home & Aging Services (now Jewish Senior Life).
“It seemed like a logical choice to bring the program to Jewish Senior Life, the central agency providing services to older adults,” said Barbra Giles, JSL’s executive director of aging services.
From the beginning, Silow took “the program to where the survivors went,” which was the Jewish Community Center in Oak Park before its closing in 2015.
Support groups remain the heart of PHSF, and Silow leads more than 160 sessions yearly. They include weekly groups at Prentis in Oak Park and Fleischman Residence in West Bloomfield; monthly groups at Meer Apartments in West Bloomfield; groups for Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors (aided by bilingual social workers) at Prentis and neighboring Teitel JSL Apartments; and a new group he started for survivors speaking at the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) in Farmington Hills.
Making A Difference
Silow founded his first organization, CHAIM, in 1979 to give children of Holocaust survivors a sense of comfort and belonging.
He met his future wife, artist Sarah Hartman-Silow, at a CHAIM program and they married in 1992. Their daughters are Shoshana, 21, a junior at Touro College in New York, and Naomi, 15, a freshman at Farber Hebrew Day School in Southfield.
In addition, children of survivors can participate in a biweekly support group at Fleischman. Their issues include dealing with the “emotions of losing a parent as well as the unique care challenges of survivor parents,” said Renee Fein, program coordinator of PHSF and the JSL Foundation. Outreach continues to the survivors’ grandchildren.
“Charley works for the survivors and for their families. He has known all of them for his whole adult life. Not many of us can say that.”
— Rene Lichtman
An annual highlight is bringing survivors and family members by bus to Lansing for April’s Holocaust Remembrance Day/Yom HaShoah at the state capital. A lunch with students follows at Michigan State University Hillel.
“In November, we take Holocaust survivors to Ann Arbor for the SHARE Luncheon, sponsored through University of Michigan Hillel,” Silow said. Survivors celebrate Purim and Chanukah with Farber Hebrew Day School students.
With the help of sponsors, Silow initiated “Portraits of Honor: Our Michigan Holocaust Survivors.” The project is a source of pride for local survivor families. It started with the black-and-white photographs Silow took of survivors. The pictures later were paired with details of each person’s history, from Silow’s interviews, for a digital database at the HMC. Individual entries may be accessed there or online. The next stage, already under way, is preparing all 550 and counting portraits for display on HMC classroom walls.
Silow, a HMC board member, lends his expertise and empathy to organizations outside Metro Detroit.
He recently was elected first vice president of World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants (WFJCSHD). Silow is responsible for second- and third-generation programming at the group’s annual conferences. He also serves on the Coordinating Committee of Generations of Shoah International, a federation of second-generation organizations.
WFJCSHD President Stephanie Seltzer said Silow’s “organizational and leadership skills have helped us through the years; we can depend on Charley to follow through with any tasks he has taken on.”
It’s back home where Silow continues having his greatest impact.
“Charley works for the survivors and for their families. He has known all of them for his whole adult life. Not many of us can say that,” said Rene Lichtman, founder of Hidden Children of Michigan.
“Charley is a wonderful person,” said survivor Michael Weiss, an HMC speaker. “He’s dedicated his life to the survivors and does it very well.”
Renee Fein said, “For holidays and Shabbat, he and his wife, Sarah, often invite survivors to join them for lunch, as well as for Passover seders.”
“Charley is a very dedicated, warm individual who has worked tirelessly over the years,” said Rosa Chessler, a CHAIM board member.
Close friend David Oliwek, also a CHAIM board member, said, “Charley is a liaison for survivors to the outside world. He knows where to refer them to help them get benefits.”
Survivor Anna Fein, Renee Fein’s mother, said, “He calls if someone doesn’t come to the support group to make sure everyone is OK.”
“I figure we’ve touched the lives of more than 2,000 survivors and family members with our support groups, Café Europa and enrichment programs,” Silow said. “Everything offered to survivors is so they will not feel alone.”