Yuli nogin was among the approximately one hundred thousand Jews who escaped Kiev in advance of the German occupation in 1941. Just four years old, he and his mother moved from train to train in desperate search of a safe place to resettle. “I was hungry twenty-four hours a day,” recalled Nogin, now eighty-one. “Even in sleep.”
Decades later, as a senior living on a limited income in Boston, Nogin had new worries about food. Eating was painful because of a deeply infected tooth and other dental problems, all too costly for him to fix.
But through the volunteer efforts of Steven Spitz, D94, the tooth has been pulled and an implant is scheduled. Nogin’s mouth, once prone to bleeding, has healed. “In America, there is a lot to eat—but you need teeth to eat this food!” he said with a laugh. “Now I can eat an apple . . . a little bit slowly maybe, but it is one of my favorite foods.”
Nogin’s free dental care—and his renewed pleasure in eating—was made possible by Spitz and the Alpha Omega-Henry Schein Cares Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program. Dentists from Alpha Omega International, a Jewish dental fraternity dedicated to promoting social justice and oral health in underserved communities, provide lower-income Holocaust survivors with no-cost, comprehensive care, ranging from cleanings and fillings to root canals and implants. Henry Schein, a leading provider for health-care fields, donates the dental supply kits.
Spitz, past president of the Boston AO chapter and AO International president-elect, has been a proud volunteer for the program for four years. “Every Jew, and many non-Jewish individuals, have some personal connection to the tragedy of the Holocaust in their personal history,” he said, “and having the ability to make a concrete difference in honor of family members, past and present, speaks directly to our hearts.”
Nathan Birnbaum, D08P, a former associate clinical professor at the School of Dental Medicine, also has a personal connection to his volunteer work: his father, Jacob, author of the memoir I Kept My Promise, survived six concentration camps. Birnbaum and his daughter, Heidi Aaronson, D08, have now worked with several patients through the program, which carries on a similar initiative the Boston AO chapter and Birnbaum pioneered ten years ago called Dental Assistance for Survivors of the Holocaust. “That was something we were very proud of,” Birnbaum said, “and we’re glad to be able to continue its spirit.”
The Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program dates to 2014, when Vice President Joe Biden called attention to the estimated one-third of the hundred-thousand Holocaust survivors in the United States living at or below the poverty line, said Allison Neale, J98, director of public policy for Henry Schein. “That people who have endured the horrors of the Holocaust should be living in pain in their older years was, and is, unacceptable to those of us at Henry Schein,” Neale said. Since the partnership with Alpha Omega was launched in January 2015, it has expanded to twenty cities in the United States and Canada and given care to more than 1,200 survivors (the value of the work is estimated at nearly $1.6 million).
Spitz has seen firsthand how dental care can make a profound difference to a senior struggling to make ends meet. When one of his patients couldn’t afford to replace a broken denture, she at first tried to fix it herself. “She was such a lively, spunky woman, and she just wanted to feel that she could go out in public,” Spitz said. After he made her a new denture, he sat her up so she could see it. “The look on her face was just amazing. She was beaming.”
The program has a profound effect on the volunteers, too. One of Heidi Aaronson’s patients, Judith Podolsky, had multiple treatments: fillings, root canals, crowns, and dentures. She then took the time to send Aaronson a handwritten letter to express her thanks. “I know it must have been difficult [to write] because she had had hand surgery,” Aaronson recalled. “This is why I am in dentistry. The feeling that I can improve a life—that’s not work. It’s fun. And the best part is that it is life-changing for Judith.’”