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Dental schools embrace Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program

October 11, 2019

By David Burger

 Holocaust Leah Roth

Survivor: Leah Cik Roth, 94, smiles in a dental chair while awaiting treatment at the Touro College of Dental Medicine at New York Medical College with fourth-year dental student Shreya Jha, right, and third-year dental student Nicole Zimmerman, center. All students were supervised by licensed dentists.

New York — At a young age, Leah Cik Roth left her Czechoslovakian home to become an apprentice basket maker and wig maker. She learned in 1941 that most of her community back home, including her father and nearly all her siblings, had been forced over the Polish border by Hungarian forces allied with the Nazis and executed by firing squads.

As the Nazis uprooted Jews all across Europe, Ms. Roth ended up in the Czechoslovakian ghetto of Sekernice. In 1944, all of the Jewish residents there were rounded up and sent to the infamous concentration camp in Auschwitz. Once World War II was over and she was liberated, Ms. Roth eventually immigrated to the United States, settling in Monsey, New York, and writing a book about her experiences.

Now 94, Ms. Roth said that as she aged, dental pain had gotten so bad that she couldn’t sleep. Luckily for Ms. Roth, she became a patient of the Alpha Omega-Henry Schein Cares Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program, a public-private partnership established to increase Holocaust survivors’ access to oral care and significantly enhance their overall quality of life.

The program, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary in January, has treated more than 1,600 Holocaust survivors, with the value of the donated dental care nearly $3 million, according to Bernice Edelstein, manager of the program.

The program has expanded to 22 North American cities, including four Canadian cities, with over 500 dentists volunteering.

Notably, five dental schools are also now part of the program, including the Touro College of Dental Medicine at New York Medical College, where Ms. Roth was treated at no cost to her.

The Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity was founded at the University of Maryland School of Dental Medicine in 1907 by a group of dental students, according to the organization’s website. During those times, Jewish students were not permitted to form social groups, so the Maryland students formed the organization to fight discrimination, the website said.

“I am very, very happy,” Ms. Roth said about her treatment.

Alpha Omega and Henry Schein are delighted that dental schools have embraced the program, both organizations said.

“The students receive a unique opportunity to not only learn dentistry that is challenging, but also to recognize how true need and empathy can make a difference in the lives of those who have suffered so much. The program has expanded tremendously,” said Dr. Avi Wurman, past president of Alpha Omega.

“It is incredibly inspiring to see the next generation of dental professionals take part in the Alpha Omega-Henry Schein Cares Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program,” said Stanley M. Bergman, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Henry Schein. “The program offers dental students the chance to gain a greater understanding of the impact their skills can have on people and communities in need. We at Team Schein are pleased to support their efforts to improve the oral health, overall health and quality of life for this most deserving population.”

Touro fourth-year dental student Shreya Jha said she was honored to be involved in Ms. Roth’s care.

“I was aware of the time she had lost early in the early part of her life,” Ms. Jha said. “I wanted to give her the most functioning and aesthetic smile that she could enjoy for the remainder of her life. I am amazed that a human experiencing such hardship in life can remain so soft and positive. She has taught me in many ways to not complain about the little things and to have a bright outlook on life. I am in awe of how the human spirit persists and how many of these survivors' faith remained and were able to endure the physical challenges enforced upon them.”

Third-year dental student Nicole Zimmerman said she had not met anyone who was affected by the Holocaust before working with Ms. Roth.

“My experience working with Ms. Roth has been both enjoyable and a learning experience for me,” Ms. Zimmerman said. “Working with her has made me think differently, especially about how her experiences have impacted her entire life and how she is still a vibrant person who wants to share her experiences with others.”

Ms. Roth is the fourth Holocaust survivor treated through the program at the school, said Dr. Edward Farkas, vice dean of the Touro College of Dental Medicine.

The program means a great deal to Dr. Farkas.

“My father was 19 years old when he was liberated from the Auschwitz concentration camp,” Dr. Farkas said. “When he immigrated to America and started a family, we lived in neighborhoods where many other survivors had settled as well. As a result, I have a deep and abiding understanding of how their Holocaust experiences affected them on a physical, psychological, and emotional level. I have also seen the transfer effects their survivorship had on their families, which continue to resonate throughout the generations.”

It's important for Touro to be involved in the program, Dr. Farkas said.

“As the only dental school in the United States under Jewish auspices, I believe we have a special obligation to care for these people whose lives were upended for the crime of being Jewish,” Dr. Farkas said. “This is especially important for those survivors who are indigent and in the twilight of their lives. We must make them as comfortable as possible. We do this by addressing their dental needs, without cost, in an efficient and caring manner.”

The Temple University Kornberg School of Dentistry is another dental school that is involved in the program.

Dr. Howard Wimmer, a faculty member at Temple, said the experience benefits not only Holocaust survivors but also the entire dental community at the Pennsylvania school, including the students.

“Serving the elderly at the Jewish Home of Northeast Pennsylvania for 37 years and treating Holocaust survivors in my private practice in Scranton, I felt honored to come to Temple's clinical program to provide dental care to this community,” Dr. Wimmer said. “I'm thrilled to introduce dental students to the program. Future dentists need to meet the Holocaust survivors and learn about their life needs as well as their dental needs.”
Ms. Roth is proud of her new smile and voice.

“I don’t close my mouth,” she said. “If I don’t speak up, who will?”

To learn more about the program, visit ao.org/holocaust-survivors-program/about.

To donate to the program, visit aofus.org/ways-contribute/holocaust-survivors-oral-health-program/.