|By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Anna Krakovich is a survivor who has turned her adversity to other people’s advantage.
Krakovich addressed about two dozen United Jewish Federation staff members and guests yesterday about her role as a volunteer for Selah, the Israel Crisis Management Center. The night before she had met with board members of the Jewish Community Foundation about the work of her organization, which is one of the programs that the United Jewish Communities’ $300 million Israel Emergency Campaign is underwriting. Claire Ellman, a co-chair with Andrew Viterbi of the campaign in San Diego County, reported that $3.4 million had been raised in this county alone since the North American effort began Monday, Aug. 7. In addition to helping Selah help trauma victims, these emergency funds are, among other uses, helping to relocate children from areas under rocket attack by
All the funds raised for such purposes in Israel are being distributed without any of the North American agencies deducting administrative costs, Ellman reported.
Twelve years after suffering her own tremendous trauma, Krakovich is able to bring help and hope to a new generation of Israelis wounded by terrorists. In April 1994, a Hamas-affiliated suicide bomber in Afula detonated his car next to a bus, killing eight persons and wounding many more. Krakovich, then a recent immigrant from the Ukraine, was returning home from the school where she was completing her first term teaching English to Israelis—even as she previously had taught English in the Ukraine. The blast incinerated 70 percent of her body. Rescue workers got her to a hospital, but doctors were pessimistic. They rated her chance for survival at zero.
But the doctors did not give up, and neither did Krakovich. She informed me that she is not the “victim” of a terror attack; she is a “survivor.” The difference is not just a matter of semantics: a “victim” is someone who is passive; someone to whom things happen. A “survivor” is one who plays an active role in his or her recovery.
Patients recovering from the effects of suicide bombings and similar trauma have many different kinds of reactions, she said. Typically, a first reaction, even through the pain, is one of joy; “I’m alive! Thank God, I’m alive!” she said. But this elation does not necessarily last for a long time. Under the pressure of pain, fatigue, depression, and an overwhelming sense of loss, patients may feel that recovery is just too hard, that their lives are no longer worth living. Krakovich knows; she went through such a phase herself.
Selah had organized as a volunteer organization just one year before the Afula bombing. Selah’s leader, Ruth Bar-On, rallied volunteers and financial contributors to come to the aid of this Ukrainian Jewish English-teacher, who had no family in Israel and who had been so busy establishing her life that she and her daughter, Irene, 11, had not yet made real friends.
Selah purchased airline tickets for Krakovich’s mother to come from Odessa. Volunteers sat by Krakovich’s bedside, keeping her company, chatting about Israel, making her realize from their unremitting presence that people cared, that Israel cared, and that she was not alone. She had to get better!
There were times while feeling herself disfigured, and seemingly crippled, that she would voice her despair. When people asked her, “What do you want, Anna?” she would respond, “I want only one thing: not to be anymore.”
It got so people avoided asking her the question, so despondent was her answer. Then one day, when she was finally up and walking in the burn unit of Rambam Hospital of Haifa—looking like “a phantom” and wearing a pressure garment, “with only a part of my face exposed, and burnt hair and ears”—she kept demanding to know where Bar-On was.
It turned out her mentor had been stuck on an elevator. When Bar-On finally arrived, Krakovich suggested: “Ask me what I want.” Warily, Bar-On evaded the issue. “Ask me what I want,” Krakovich insisted. Okay, so what do you want? Bar-On surrendered. “To be a Selah volunteer!” Krakovich announced. She especially wanted to be able to help other immigrants to Israel, who, like she had, might feel alone and overwhelmed. That was the day she stopped being a victim and became a survivor.
Daughter Irene was a second-generation survivor. Even after returning home, Krakovich was in considerable pain. Rather than scream at night, and scare Irene awake, Krakovich used to stuff her mouth with food instead. She gained 30 pounds, making herself feel even more miserable. Sometimes she would cry, and her child would become her parent. Irene would say, “you are so good, and a good thing, one should have as much as possible – so it is good that you are so big now. I want as much of you as possible.”
Krakovich reflected, “I don’t know how she invented it, she was 12 then. Or, she would kiss my fingers, and say ‘mom, don’t cry, your friends like you as you are…'” Eventually, Krakovich shed the weight.
While recuperating at home, there was another terror attack and Krakovich decided to visit the same burn unit where she had been treated. She was talking to the families who were sitting by the bedside of their sons, when hospital personnel gathered around her and excitedly told the patients: “Look you are in shock, and look at Anna. She had her life like you did, she had no skin at all, and look she is walking!”
Krakovich said she looked at the families and “then and there I saw this sparkle in their eyes. They would rather believe me, whom they saw was going through something like this, than another person who would say their son would be okay again…. I did what I could to demonstrate… I tried my best to walk as well as I possibly could—that gave me momentum. I was in pretty bad shape, and yet I could give some of myself to somebody.”
Telling the story, a sudden cloud comes over Krakovich’s face. She didn’t want me, or anyone else, to think that one has to overcome some traumatic experience to be empathetic to people recovering from trauma. Ruth Bar-On and the Selah volunteers who had comforted her a dozen years before did not have such experiences, and she could not have asked for more excellent people.
Sometimes, she said, she and other trauma victims feel what is known as survivor’s guilt. Why did I survive when they died? A variant is when she sees casualties of war, like a young IDF soldier, who was sitting on a tank that was hit by enemy fire. Both his arms were severed near the shoulders, so high that prosthetic devices are all but impossible. Seeing that young man, Krakovich said, she sometimes thinks that it isn’t fair; he is young, with a life ahead of him, while she has had a life, she had been married, had a child, had traveled. Why not her instead of him?
Recovery is a long process, she said. She’s still doing it, and others are as well. She knows of three families in which grandparents are raising their orphaned grandchildren. Those children still will be orphans even in five years, she noted. And, long after this war subsides, the needs of the families it impacted will continue.
At the United Jewish Federation meeting, Krakovich reported that her organization does not only visit patients in their hospital rooms, although this is an important role.
Since July 12 when two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid from Lebanon, precipitating the warfare, the organization’s 605 volunteers have been kept busy—not only in the north, where Hezbollah rockets come crashing down daily, but in the south, where other rockets are fired from Gaza by Hamas.
“What do we do? We provide practical, financial and emotional help to the immigrants who need it—food, child care and transportation. We are in the morgue with the newly bereaved, at funerals comforting the families, and in their homes—if they still have homes…We provide life-saving medicines in places where pharmacies do not work. The doctors on our emergency team prescribe medicines and obtain them from the drug stores…. Of course, we provide transportation for people from the north, and we find alternative houses for those in the areas of emergency.
“We don’t do it instead of the government, because… Israel is a welfare state – and we have a very strong social security system. But welfare doesn’t sit by the bedside of the wounded, and they do not pour a cup of tea or a glass of milk for whoever needs it. Through the years since it was organized, in 1993, Selah has been in touch with 14,000 families. And during this war it has been roughly 1,300 people that we took care of.”