The lockdown evokes traumatic memories in some Holocaust survivors. Others react surprisingly resiliently.

Note: Published by Pauline Voss in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on December 9,2020“. Translated from German.

On the first day of the lockdown in spring, Ruth Yaacobi* began to ask: “Why can’t we go outside? Are the Nazis back? Do we have to leave? Do we have to hide?” Over and over again, the husband and daughter had to assure the 88-year-old woman that the Nazis had not returned. For a month this went on. “My mother’s short-term memory is no longer working,” says the daughter. During the lockdown, she had moved to her parents on Lake Zurich. “Because she was suddenly no longer allowed to leave the house, the experiences of childhood were apparently reactivated.”

Twice, Ruth Yaacobi had to cope with a complete change in her environment at a young age. Born 1932 in Berlin as the daughter of a doctor and a musician, the Jewish girl fled to Holland alone at the age of six. She was handed over to complete strangers at the border and lived with a Catholic family under a false name until the age of thirteen. After the end of the war her father brought her to him. He had survived underground in Amsterdam, her mother had been murdered in a psychiatric hospital in Germany. Again, the girl had to adapt to a new cultural environment: she now lived with her father and his new wife, a liberal Protestant concert pianist.

The pandemic poses a threat not only to the psyche of Holocaust survivors. Because of their age they belong to the risk group. In Israel alone, about half of the Jews over 75 years of age are genocide survivors. Just like Aryeh Even, the first Israeli victim of the virus.

“Biggest threat since World War II”

The 450 or so survivors who live in Switzerland today are also at risk. In the Jewish retirement home Skina in Zurich, a Covid ward had to be set up to separate sick residents. Holocaust expert Stephen D. Smith described the pandemic in the New York Times as “the greatest threat to this generation since the Second World War”. He heads the USC Shoah Foundation, which records interviews with survivors to preserve them as testimonies. Many of them are only now telling their stories in full, he says.

Anita Winter from Zurich has also had this experience. In 2014, she founded the Gamaraal Foundation, which is involved in Holocaust education and supports survivors in Switzerland, including Jews, the politically persecuted, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma and Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Many of them now talk more openly because they fear they will not survive the pandemic and want to tell certain things beforehand.” When Holocaust survivors were forced to isolate themselves at home because of the Coronavirus, the Gamaraal Foundation set up a Corona Hotline.

Day and night, the survivors can contact them if they need concrete help or just someone to talk to. A volunteer has been assigned to each of them, who does the shopping, brings medicine, takes care of the telephone. A total of forty people have volunteered so far, most of them students or young workers. Cases of retraumatisation like Ruth Yaacobi’s were rather rare: “We were all impressed by the resilience of the survivors,” says Anita Winter, who herself conducted many of the talks. According to Gary J. Kennedy, director of the geriatric department at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, this resilience is “a norm, not an exception. Those who survived the Holocaust belong to a select group,” he told the New York Times.

Professor Amit Shrira from Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv also attests the survivors an “impressive resilience”. He has scientifically studied the psychological effects of the pandemic on Israeli Holocaust survivors. According to Shrira, although some of the current health regulations are similar to the living conditions of the Holocaust, the psychological burden of the survivors did not increase more than in the control group, which was not personally affected by the Holocaust. In his study, only those survivors who had already been confronted with infectious diseases during the Holocaust – such as tuberculosis or dysentery – showed a significantly increased level of suffering.

Parallels to war experiences

Nevertheless, the uncertainty and loneliness are a burden to many of the survivors. This can be seen from transcripts of talks held by the Gamaraal Foundation, some of which are available to the NZZ – anonymised and with the consent of those affected. On several occasions this year, the foundation had received enquiries from historians asking how the survivors were dealing with the pandemic. For this reason, in July, the Foundation began to interview some of them by telephone independently of the hotline to find out more about their unique view of the present. History students who volunteered asked the survivors questions – such as whether the pandemic reminded them of their experiences during the Holocaust. Some actually recognised parallels:
“During the lockdown, I already said that it reminds me of the wartime, especially the time when things were not so bad. At that time you listened to the radio every day and followed the war: How close are the Germans? What is the situation? What is happening? Are we being deported? Will bombs fall? All this had to be followed very, very closely every day. And it is similar here now. Every evening with the ‘Tagesschau’, you just have to see how the situation is.

Many were particularly affected by the invisibility of the threat:

“In the Second World War, people knew about the enemy, but in the current situation anyone can be a carrier of the virus and therefore, to a certain extent, an enemy. This is very worrying. I feel like I’m in prison, and sometimes that’s an even worse feeling than in war.

Most, however, strongly reject comparisons of the pandemic with the period of National Socialism. One of the interviewees puts it in a nutshell: “If someone survived the Holocaust, the Coronavirus is not opposed to it. Another person says:

“Oh, my God! This is stupid! This is a great stupidity. Nothing can compare with a war. Oh no, I experienced it myself as a child. I was born in a war. In a war, even if you are careful, you can die. You can get killed even if you’re careful. And in such a crisis, if you’re careful, you don’t die. That’s the big difference.”

Nevertheless, the very threat of death from the virus brings back old memories. The potential lack of intensive care capacities and the associated triage is a concern for some of those survivors who experienced selection in concentration camps or had to make life-and-death decisions – for example, when not everyone could be taken along on the run. A survivor from Ticino tells the NZZ on the phone about his experiences in labour camps where he was imprisoned between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one. Direct selection, he stresses, was not something he experienced there. But anyone who fell ill and was unfit for work for more than seven days was deported to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp and gassed.

He is therefore all the more outraged that old people should no longer receive intensive treatment if the health system is overloaded. “Doctors are there to heal. You can’t leave them to decide on life and death”. In the summer, he believes that the number of intensive care beds should have been increased. “Old people are now only seen as a burden to society.”
The enemy is invisible

One survivor, tells Anita Winter, suffered from not being allowed to go outside because of the Coronavirus, because it reminded him of the time when he, at the age of 19, had gone into hiding. He lived in eastern Poland with false papers that passed him off as a Christian. Even then, danger was always lurking on the streets. During the pandemic, he found it particularly threatening that the “enemy” was invisible and potentially everywhere. “At least back then we knew who the enemy was,” he told Anita Winter.

Many of the survivors miss the lectures in schools where they tell pupils about their experiences during the Nazi period. Most of the commemorative events could also only take place online this year. “This is particularly sad and painful as these are the last few years when survivors can take part in these events and exchange their testimonies,” explains the European Jewish Congress (EJC) on request. “The pandemic will force us to rethink the format of commemoration events in order to reach a wider audience, including the younger generation, while at the same time involving and honouring survivors”. As a creative alternative, the EJC refers to young Israeli people who had organised events in the streets outside old people’s homes on Holocaust Memorial Day.

While educational events on the Holocaust have to be cancelled, antisemitic conspiracy theories continue to penetrate the mainstream. The Gamaraal Foundation’s discussion notes also express the fear of the social consequences of the pandemic: “So many people have died of Spanish flu and then came an economic crisis. Then came Hitler, which was somehow a late consequence. Hopefully it won’t happen now.”

The volunteers also benefit from the hotline

Marguerite Dunitz-Scheer, a paediatrician and psychotherapist who grew up on the shores of Lake Zurich, has advised the volunteers of the Corona Hotline from the very beginning. She has specialised in working with traumatised patients. An emergency hotline, she says, must be as uncomplicated as possible and be able to deliver what it promises. Above all, someone must be available at all times. The choice of volunteers is also important, she says. After all, there is a difference of up to seventy years in age and a completely different horizon of experience between them and the survivors. “You have to find volunteers who are sensitive, interested and respectful. Many of the elderly people are not able to articulate their needs concretely at all”. However, the volunteers themselves could benefit enormously from these experiences.

This is also how Benjamin Frick sees it. As one of the forty volunteers, he looked after a couple from Zurich in the spring. He would take part in the project again at any time, and yet he underestimated the telephone support in particular, he says. Although he had studied history and was familiar with the Holocaust, direct contact with survivors was something else. The conversations were “extremely impressive” for him.

Alisa Winter was also very close to the telephone calls. Anita Winter’s daughter has been on the Gamaraal Foundation Board of Trustees for years, and close contact with survivors is nothing new for her. During the pandemic, however, she had noticed that the need to tell about past experiences had grown out of concern that fates might now be forgotten. Together with her mother and her brother, the young Zurich native launched the relief campaign, posted appeals on Facebook and Linkedin and was responsible for the allocation of volunteers. “We had to plan exactly how to avoid any physical contact. We also had to raise awareness of what to look out for in contact with survivors. Many of them find it difficult to build trust with others because of their experiences”.

Ruth Yaacobi’s daughter is happy that she was able to spend the lockdown time with her parents. In the meantime she has returned to her adopted country Austria. It reassures her that her parents can call the Gamaraal Corona Hotline in case of an emergency. At present, however, her mother’s situation has stabilised. After Ruth Yaacobi had initially believed that one could not leave the house because of the Nazis, memories of her visits to Israel came back to her.

It was only when the lockdown was relaxed at the end of April and she was able to go to the hairdresser every week as before that she calmed down, the daughter says. “When she saw the people with their masks, she understood that this was a pandemic. Since then she has been coping with Corona very well”. She had understood that the situation was completely different from the war.

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