Vikings help Holocaust survivors get hearing aids

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- On Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, nearly 100 people -- and more than 20 Holocaust survivors -- got hearing aids they probably wouldn't have been able to afford otherwise. It happened, in part, because of a company in Minnesota and a family from New Jersey that owned the football team down the road.

It was about four years ago that Minnesota Vikings vice chairman Lenny Wilf's need for a hearing aid led him to Starkey Hearing Technologies, the company whose headquarters sit just a mile and a half north of the Vikings' training facility on Washington Drive in Eden Prairie. It introduced him to a company whose philanthropic work has helped outfit more than a million people with hearing aids in this decade.

"I remember speaking to one woman -- her daughter couldn't hear," Wilf said. "I said, 'You're going to be amazed what your child is going to look like; her self-confidence once she's able to hear.' It's like a whole new place. It's almost like you snap your fingers and their whole life changes."

Wednesday's Starkey hearing mission at Yankee Stadium was the third or fourth in which Leonard Wilf has participated. Among those being outfitted with hearing aids was a group of people the Wilfs have been trying to reach.

Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf are the children of Joseph and Suzie Wilf, Holocaust survivors who met in the American-occupied zone of West Germany before coming to the United States. Mark Wilf is currently chairing an effort by the Jewish Federations of North America -- alongside another from the Obama Administration -- to meet basic needs for Holocaust survivors nearing the end of their lives in the United States.

Among the 120,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States -- most of whom are in their 80s and 90s -- an estimated 25 percent are living at or below the poverty line. Faced with language barriers and haunted by tragic memories when they came to the United States, many survivors are now dealing with a loss of government income after the death of a spouse, along with a greater need for social services because of their traumatic childhoods.

The JFNA is trying to raise $45 million by the end of 2016; senior consultant Max Kleinman said the group already has raised about $25 million.

"This is very, very personal, because these are our families," said Kleinman, whose parents came to the United States in 1949 after spending four years in a displaced persons' camp in Germany. "We're trying to protect them. We're trying to preserve their memories. We're trying to make sure their later lives do not have the type of trauma they underwent during their early years. We're working hard to try to help them have great lives, and also for them to be proud of us. We're carrying on a legacy -- not only for them, but for all of our lost relatives. I never had any aunts or uncles. I never had any grandparents whom I met; they were all killed. You're trying to carry on a legacy for those who vanquished during the war."

Mark and Lenny Wilf attended Wednesday's mission at Yankee Stadium, which was sponsored by the Vikings, New York Yankees, JFNA and the Wilf Family Foundation. It included an appearance from Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

"For us, it's something personal and important, but I think it's a lesson every one of us can draw from," Mark Wilf said. "That collective memory [of the Holocaust] is very important. The fact of the matter is we're very privileged to be in the position we're in, in business and the sports world. With that privilege comes responsibility. This is one area we can really make a difference in people's lives, and at the same time, educate the public."