A friendship between two kindred souls, now neighbors…
The Selfhelp Home was originally established as a refuge for Holocaust survivors in 1938. We’re honored to continue our legacy providing older adults the highest quality of care in a culturally rich Jewish environment. Selfhelp is still home to several survivors today. History, especially when told by those who lived it, does so much more than record past events; it illuminates stories of suffering and resilience. Storytelling commemorates the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, and the heroism of survivors and rescuers.
As we observe Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah), we’ve chosen to spotlight two of our residents that are Holocaust survivors. Fela Dogadko and Hela Rappaport both share their life journey and their experience moving into The Selfhelp Home. Fela and Hela were both born in Warsaw, Poland and fled during the war. They are now neighbors at Selfhelp and new friends.
Hela was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1927 and she is a Holocaust survivor. Hela spent time in the Warsaw Ghetto and then in a concentration camp in Germany. She survived the war, but tragically, her family did not. After the war, Hela spent time on a kibbutz in Germany with other survivors as they waited to make aliyah. They traveled by foot from Germany to Italy, where they stayed for six or seven months, and then took a boat from Italy to Palestine in 1946. The boat was small and rocked back and forth, and the people had to move from one side of the boat to the other to keep it balanced. When they arrived in Palestine, the boat was not allowed entry and instead was sent to Cypress.
Hela lived in a refugee camp in Cypress for several years. She married her husband Yehuda, whom she had met on the kibbutz in Cypress at only 19 years old. In 1948, before the Israeli War of Independence, Hela and Yehuda finally made it to Israel. In Israel, Hela went to beauty school and became a hairdresser (and occasional manicurist). Her clients came to her home. She and Yehuda had two sons, both of whom are now deceased. Hela moved to Brooklyn in the 1980s to be closer to her son who lived in the US. Hela speaks four languages fluently: Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. She also understands German and Russian.
Hela enjoys living at The Selfhelp Home. She was most recently living with a cousin in Brooklyn, and now she is loving having her own apartment all to herself. When Hela knew it was time to move, she asked her granddaughter Lee (who lives in Chicago) to find her a new home. Being in a Jewish place was very important to her. Hela says she is happy at Selfhelp and has everything she needs. She especially enjoys sitting on the rooftop patio in nice weather. Hela would like everyone to know that even though she has gone through many hardships in her life, she remains a very positive person.
Fela was born in Warsaw, Poland. After fleeing Poland as a young girl, she spent much of the war not far from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. During that time she helped her mother work in an apple orchard picking apples. As she moved from place to place, Fela learned to speak multiple languages over the years: English, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish.
After the war, she and her mother moved back to Poland. After her mother passed away in 1955, she and her husband left for Israel in 1957. In Israel, she learned whatever she could of the language in the first three months. She says, “After four hours of work in the kibbutz, you couldn’t stay awake for four hours of class.” Fela was 25 years old when she moved to the United States with her husband in 1961, after living in Israel for 3 years.
She went to Northeastern University in Chicago and earned her degree in Mathematics. She was 41 when she graduated and worked as a math teacher in Chicago Public Schools for 25 years. One of the schools she taught in was a bilingual English-Polish elementary school, which had a large population of special needs students. She also used to run a non-profit bingo parlor for special needs children.
The first time Fela heard about Selfhelp was when she volunteered for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and she participated in a program where they wrote memoirs to be shared in an exhibit. Fela came to The Selfhelp Home to interview residents who were also Holocaust survivors. Fela has written a memoir called War and Ice Cream.
On January 1, 2022, Fela started the new year out with a bang when she had a fall in her house. She came to The Selfhelp Home Health and Rehabilitation Center to recover after her fall, and has been here ever since. Fela completed her rehabilitation and then extended her stay into a respite apartment and now is living in her own studio at Selfhelp. Fela knew it was time to make a move and felt Selfhelp was the best place for her. “I always knew this would be the right place for me.” At first, the transition was challenging as she was used to living entirely independently, but now Fela says: “They have everything here. They’re very good!”
Fela has been at Selfhelp just a few months and it already feels like home. “It could be the Jewishness. It just feels close and safe.” Fela had a positive experience in the rehab unit upstairs: “The care, the people, and the kindness, I liked that. Everybody’s been friendly and welcoming to me.”
Fela says she never tries to hide her Holocaust experience. “I have a friend who is a survivor as well. She suffered, but she’s chosen to continue suffering. She feels compelled to suffer for the rest of her life. It’s odd to me, I keep telling her: ‘Just because you suffered, do you feel obligated to waste the rest of your life suffering?’ It doesn’t make sense to me. Some people suffer by not talking about it. I learned to adjust. I was teaching for 25 years…maybe I am able to move on because I’m always learning from my experiences.”