Europe’s only Jewish hospice gives Holocaust survivors a dignified farewell

by | Dec 1, 2017 | Obituaries

AMSTERDAM (JTA)—Henny Goudeketting, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, is ailing and preparing to leave the world.

Goudeketting, who was sterilized in Nazi medical experiments at Auschwitz, has neither children nor other relatives to care for her. Now, after multiple infections and recurrent falls, she’s readying to say goodbye.

“It’s kind of strange,” Goudeketting says. “I know I have no future and I’m ready to die, but I’m still afraid of actually dying.”

The Amsterdam native returned to the city at 23 after surviving Auschwitz.

“My biggest sorrow is not being able to have children,” says Goudeketting, who had worked for decades as a seamstress.

Last month she was admitted to Immanuel, a small but upscale eight-room facility for the terminally ill. It is Europe’s only Jewish hospice, according to Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry.

While such facilities are common in the U.S.—the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, which was established in 1985 in New York, lists no fewer than 225 accredited Jewish hospice programs—they remain rare on the continent, where the Jewish community was decimated by the Holocaust.

Funded with private donations, as well as patient fees and some subsidies, the hospice was built by the Dutch Jewish community for survivors like Goudeketting to receive top end-of-life care.

“I’m not sure whether this is real, the luxurious treatment I’m getting here,” she says. “I’ve never experienced anything like this in my whole life.”

Take the on-demand room service.

“If I want a fried egg, or anything else, all I have to do is buzz,” says Goudeketting, whose stay at Immanuel is covered by her insurance. “They come round in seconds to terribly spoil me.”

The Netherlands, which last year was No. 1 on Europe’s index of public health systems, has 146 hospices nationwide with an average guest satisfaction rating of 9.1 out of 10. And whereas Immanuel’s on-demand room service is a standout amenity, patients at other hospices receive similar conditions—all for a daily rate of less than $70 covered by the government or basic insurance policies.

But Immanuel is the only hospice in Europe for guests like Goudeketting who keep kosher, although there are other hospitals with palliative programs that offer kosher food.

It’s also the only hospice where the staff and volunteers “already know the special issues connected to caring for the generation of Holocaust survivors,” says Sasja Martel, the institution’s founding director. That’s crucial, she says, “because at the last stage of life, it’s often too late to start explaining” what those special issues are.

Rabbinical or other spiritual counseling is available to guests, as is counseling on accepting death, mostly by volunteers. That’s an issue for many survivors who are conditioned to “fight death at all costs,” Martel says.

The hospice, which has an annual budget of approximately $500,000, is subtly adorned with Jewish symbols ranging from mezuzahs, menorahs and, atop one piece of furniture in the main hall, a small pile of stones of the kind that Jews place on cemetery headstones.

“The significance of little things is amplified near the end,” Martel says. “Many guests feel a need to touch their identity, reconnect with it, even if only through the symbols. Or the typical Ashkenazi Jewish chicken soup we serve, that they remember from their grandmother, or the white tablecloth on Shabbat and the candle lighting. Or just a Jewish joke.”

At Immanuel, staff are trained to accommodate the special needs of survivors like Goudeketting, who have no family, adds Martel.

“We need to be conscious that for many of our guests we are all that they have, which is not necessarily the case in other hospices,” she says.

There are other sensitivity issues. For example, the hospice decided not to hire a nurse who had a German accent, Martel said at a symposium on hospice care in Judaism in honor of Immanuel’s 10th anniversary.

“If it was discrimination, it was a positive one for our guests,” she says.

Only about half of the hospice’s guests are Jewish, however. Anyone diagnosed as being terminally ill can ask to be referred here. And though capacity is limited because of Immanuel’s small size, the high turnover—the average stay is 11 days— means frequent openings.

“When we set up this home, we decided as a matter of policy that it wouldn’t be a place for Jews only,” Martel says. “We didn’t want to send anyone away.”

– Cnaan Liphshiz