Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Five-Alarm Life: Making the First Move

By Aabye-Gayle D. Francis-Favilla

When we made the decision to wait for our apartment to be rebuilt, we found ourselves on the shores of an indefinite expanse of time as nomads with no clear way to get across. And when all was said and done, we had ended up moving six times in 10 months. Each move had its blessings and challenges. Each step remained out of our view until we needed to take it—presenting itself at just the right moment. It was like trying to find our way in the dark with a flashlight that only let us see where we were already standing. But we made it.

Our first move’s objective was simple—get out as soon as possible. After the fire, our apartment was a dark, cold, dripping wet and windowless mess. Our few salvageable belongings needed to be packed up and taken out. Most of our clothes went to the dry cleaners to be treated in a special solution. The rest we washed (and rewashed) ourselves as many as four or five times in a row to rid our clothes of their smoky smell. It helped to put a bit of vanilla extract in with the wash load (a trick I learned on the Red Cross website).

Sorting through our belongings my hands grew raw and numb. It was late December, the building’s heat had been cut off, and the windows to our apartment had all been removed. It was hard to tell what was damp and what was simply freezing.

Some things were clearly ruined. Our couch was graciously hosting a colony of mold, and part of our ceiling had caved in onto our bed. Other things made it through unscathed. One cupboard of mugs and glasses in particular looked unaffected. It was eerily spotless, especially considering that in a cupboard nearby everything was sitting in sooty puddles and full of brown-speckled water.

Even though our apartment was cold, dark and destroyed, it was hard to leave that last day—especially not knowing how long it would be before we saw it again. That apartment had been our home—a refuge of joy and comfort—for two years. We loved it. One day it would be fixed and we would move back in, but in the meantime I was homesick—and for a place that would no longer exist as it had. We couldn’t go back. Even when we returned it would be different. And when would we be able to return? No one could tell us for sure. It could take months—possibly as long as a year.

Move number one: We just had to get out. My brother-in-law lived less than two miles away, and he took us in. It was helpful being so close to our apartment while we dealt with the post-fire logistics. And it was comforting to be with family. We were ultimately able to stay with him for two more nights, but he himself was renting, and his landlord wouldn’t let us stay for any longer. We had 48 hours to find our next step.

Two friends came to our rescue. They offered to let us live with them for one month. We couldn’t accept their generous offer fast enough. Move number two: We packed up my car and shuttled our belongings from Queens to Manhattan. It took three or four trips back and forth to get everything. In hindsight, we probably should have left more with the in-laws. That’s a mistake we kept making. Somehow, even though we didn’t have much (by before-the-fire standards), we always managed to have too much to fit in my car in just one trip.

Living in The City was a dream fulfilled. We had traded my brother-in-law’s living room futon for a real bed in our own bedroom. We even had a bathroom to ourselves. My husband was closer to work, and I was able to leave my car with family and not have to worry about alternate side of the street parking rules—another dream answered.

Our accommodations were luxurious, but our lives were still unorganized and full of uncertainty. We had no finite timetable for when our home would be ready, and no idea where we would live next. It had only been a week since the fire, and we’d already moved twice. And with our possessions pulled in so many different directions, I couldn’t keep track of everything. Was it in storage? Maybe. Was it in my in-laws’ basement? Perhaps. Did it get thrown away or left behind in the apartment? Quite possibly. Was it still at the dry cleaners or in our friend’s closet? Hard to say. Good luck finding it—whatever “it” was. Everything felt like a loose end.

Having a full month to figure out our next step took a tremendous burden away. I no longer had to be in panic mode. We could relax a bit and find something that would really suit our needs rather than choosing something inadequate out of desperation. I was two parts hopeful and three parts pessimistic—mildly anxious to figure out where we’d live next.

Where did we live next? And how we move there in the snow and on the subway? All that to come in the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life.”

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Five-Alarm Life: Thank You Notes

By Aabye-Gayle D. Francis-Favilla

Since our fire, I have sent out 53 thank you notes. At least 53 times a person, couple, family, or group of people has done something special for us. Many of the 53 notes were sent to friends and family that we’re close to, but a number of them were sent to acquaintances or strangers who, despite not knowing us well (or at all), were compelled to do something generous.

Shelter: One group that deserved our thanks was everyone who put a roof over our heads while we waited for our apartment to be made livable again. Whether for a few days or several weeks, friends and family opened their homes to us. Each was a gracious host, each we owe a tremendous amount of gratitude.

Food: It was a full two weeks after the fire before I had to cook a meal for myself (other than my regular morning oatmeal). Friends and family took turns cooking for us or taking us out and treating us to a meal. It wasn’t something I would have thought to ask for, but I appreciated having one less thing to worry about. And some of the food went beyond basic sustenance—a good out-of-town friend sent us a delicious batch of homemade cookies. Another friend made us bread.

Clothes: It took a few weeks before we had any clothes of our own (beyond what we’d run out wearing on the night of the fire). And especially in those days before we knew what would be salvageable, we wanted to avoid buying anything unnecessarily. But it was winter, so we didn’t just need clothes, we needed layers of them. My husband didn’t even have pants—he had rushed out of our burning building in his pajama bottoms. Again, friends and family and their friends (people who didn’t know us directly) came to our rescue. A former colleague sent me a large box full of clothes: socks, sweaters, gloves and everything in between. One of my husband’s colleagues gave us each a handmade scarf. Some of those gifted items are favorites in my wardrobe to this day. And each time I wear one I remember where it came from, and I’m grateful.

Money: Knowing that because we had renter’s insurance, we would be reimbursed for anything we had to replace or repair due to the fire, we discouraged our friends and family from giving us money and asked them to instead make donations to the Red Cross or our church. But some chose to give us financial help anyway, and we couldn’t have been more grateful for each person who did so. Additional expenses kept cropping up that didn’t qualify for reimbursement. A few days after the fire, my car needed almost $1,000 in repairs, then came an almost $600 medical bill, but because of the financial gifts we’d received, we had the money to cover whatever expenses came our way. Again, some of these people hadn’t even met us before, but they had heard our story through someone who knew us and were moved to give.

Transportation: When we had to evacuate due to the fire, I left my only set of car keys behind. Even after I got my car keys back, sleep-deprived as I was until my insomnia subsided, I didn’t have the energy to drive. Friends took turns offering us rides from point “A” to point “B” and helping us move our stuff. One friend in particular drove us to church on two different Sundays, and for you to fully understand how moving his gesture was, I have to tell you that we were staying in Manhattan at the time, our church is in Queens, and he lives in the Bronx. And he didn’t just give us a ride; he also brought breakfast for us.

Miscellaneous: There were lots of little inconveniences right after the fire as well. We didn’t know where we’d be living at first or how long we’d be able to stay there, and so while we could put some things in storage, other things we wanted more accessible, but didn’t want to have to transport every time we moved—we were nomads now. A good friend stepped in and offered his closet space to us. As we got things back from the dry cleaners, we were able to store all of our out of season clothes with him. Someone gave us a power adapter for the laptop that had miraculously made it. Another friend gave us a shopping cart. That shopping cart proved extremely useful. It was very large, and I used it to transport the majority of our stuff from one temporary home to another via the subway.

Fun: People went beyond providing for our necessities, and gave us opportunities to play and have fun. We were given movie tickets and games. Friends and family had us over to talk, play, and just forget our worries for a while. Each person who helped us laugh or rest (or otherwise appreciate the joys of life a fire can’t take away) was invaluable to us.

My husband and I were overwhelmed by love. We had always known we had good and generous family and friends, but they still surprised and overwhelmed us with their kindness. And so I was compelled to send out 53 thank you cards. And those notes of gratitude don’t even fully encompass all I’m thankful for. They don’t include all the people who were working behind the scenes, the anonymous givers, or those who offered help that extended beyond our needs. It doesn’t include all my prayers of gratitude for making it out alive and uninjured and for everything we didn’t lose in the fire. And it doesn’t include any who (in my frazzled mental state) I simply forgot to thank formally.

I’m grateful for the Red Cross. The help offered by this volunteer and donation-based organization addressed our immediate needs for food, shelter and clothing, and reduced our mental strain by providing us with guidance. Without the Red Cross we would have wasted countless hours spinning our wheels as we tried to figure things out. We came in full of uncertainty and questions. We walked away with just one or two forms to fill out, the information we needed, and clear instructions.

I’m grateful for every person and resource that helped us. Because of them, we were able to look beyond our loss. The fire took a lot from us, but in its aftermath we gained incredible amounts of love and support. And ever present was the knowledge that it could have been gravely worse. We had lost stuff (and, temporarily, our home), but we hadn’t lost our lives or suffered serious injury. We were surrounded and embraced by generosity, thoughtfulness and love. We had a lot to be thankful for—much more than 53 thank you notes worth.

In the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life,” I’ll tell you about all of our temporary homes and the six moves we made in the ten months it took for our apartment to be restored.

Red Cross Holocaust Tracing Team Helps Fill in Pieces of a Family Puzzle

Holocaust survivors Lea Rubinstein & Murray Berliner
May 7, 1947, New York.
Imagine not knowing the answers to many of the family identity questions most of us take for granted: What were my parents’ childhoods like? Who are my aunts and uncles? Do I have any cousins?

Growing up as the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who met and married in the United States, these are questions Hannah Berliner Fischthal struggled with—and she is still seeking answers.

An English professor in New York City, Berliner Fischthal wanted to write a book about her family’s history, but as she began the project, she realized that she knew little about the paternal side of her family. “I didn’t even have names,” she said.

Berliner Fischthal’s mother, Lea, was more forthcoming than her father, so she knew a bit of her story: Lea had grown up in Belgium along with her parents and brother. They had managed to escape being sent to a concentration camp by fleeing to southern France and living there as Catholics for the duration of the war.

Berliner Fischthal’s late father, Murray Berliner, had been sent to two different forced labor camps in Germany, but he was unwilling to talk about his experiences before and during the Holocaust. As far as he was concerned, he was “born” in 1946 on the day he entered America; he wouldn’t talk about the life (or family) he’d had before that day.

In 1994, Berliner Fischthal started looking for answers about her father’s holocaust experiences, as well as those of his family. “I was very cynical,” she said. “I didn’t think I was ever going to get information from Germany. When I first started writing letters almost 20 years ago, I got no information at all.”

Berliner Fischthal enlisted the help of every organization here in the United States and abroad that offered tracing services. She sent requests to Jewish Records Indexing–Poland and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. As part of the latter’s response, they recommended that she contact the Red Cross.

At first, she was told by Red Cross there wasn’t anything to be found about her family. But over time, she received nuggets of information, and those would lead her to other information.

It has taken years, but with the help of the Red Cross, Berliner Fischthal has learned more of her father’s story. He was born in Poland in 1912 and grew up with six brothers and three sisters. He was married and had a child. He, his brothers, sisters, wife and child were all rounded up and sent to different concentration camps. Berliner Fischthal’s father, three of his siblings and a niece survived; his other siblings and his wife and child did not.

Once Berliner Fischthal learned about her father’s nine brothers and sisters, she was able to make additional inquiries and find the names of their spouses and some of their children.

The family tree that had been pruned by tragedy was getting filled out. Relatives she didn’t even know existed now had names and birthdays. She was subsequently able to find out which concentration camps they’d been taken to.

Most recently, the Red Cross was able to provide Berliner Fischthal with the Polish birth certificate for her Aunt Esther.

“I’ve always had the feeling that the Red Cross was genuinely trying to help and wouldn’t give up,” Berliner Fischthal said. “Sometimes it took many months, maybe a year, before information came through on a particular person. But I didn’t feel alone in the process, or that I was asking questions that were never going to be answered.”

There are still pieces missing in Berliner Fischthal’s knowledge of her family, but thanks in large part to the Red Cross she now has a much fuller picture.

“Receiving factual information from the Red Cross became an increasingly important way of filling in some of the tremendous gaps in my knowledge about my family that was murdered in the Holocaust,” she said. “I am very grateful for the real help the Red Cross provided.”

Friday, February 3, 2012

Total Disaster Responses by Red Cross in 2011 for NYC

The map above (click for full size) displays the numbers of disasters the Red Cross responded to and provided assistance in 2011 through out New York City. For more disaster related information, please visit

Video: Red Cross Shelters Residents Displaced by Two Fires in Yonkers, NY

For more disaster related information, please visit