For Cordula Hahn, a Holocaust survivor in Brooklyn, the first trigger was the lack of toilet paper.
“Oh, no, will I have to go back using newspaper?” she asks, half chuckling. “That’s what we did when we were in hiding in the Netherlands, and seeing the panic over toilet paper immediately brought back that memory.”
But rather than a source of trauma, childhood recollections of enduring great adversity are helping Holocaust survivors like Hahn better brace for our current global pandemic. As Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials race to hoard water, food and yes, toilet paper, survivors are meeting the challenge of life in the time of coronavirus with signature tenacity and humour.
“I grew up poor and as a refugee after the war, so I know I can live without stuff, which is very comforting actually,” says Hahn. “I don’t need stuff to survive — including toilet paper.”
Some survivors report feeling a sense of command, invincibility and even a rush of adrenaline during moments of crises. Others react more cautiously; for them, the sight of empty store shelves isn’t such a comfort.
“It takes me right back to September 1st, 1939,” says Natalie Scharf, a survivor living in Philadelphia. “My parents had a grocery store where we lived in Jaworzno, Poland, right by the German border. They knew the Nazis were seizing all Jewish businesses, so they quietly began to bring sacks of flour, sugar, beans, barley, onions and potatoes home to live off after they raided our storehouses. I’m not comparing this to the Holocaust, but seeing everything shut down, hearing of closed borders, food shortages, no travel, being afraid to go outdoors, see family and even touch anything, it feels like the start of the war. But now you don’t see the enemy.”
Still, that fear of the unseen and the unknown, which can be crippling to most, hasn’t left Scharf feeling powerless or doomsday-like. She, like many survivors, is tough, courageous and resilient, able to navigate emergencies calmly and with her wits intact. The survivor instinct is a source of hope for many at this time, helping fuel their families and those with whom they interact during this pandemic.
The prevailing attitude seems to be “We’ve seen worse,” says Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which provides 50,000 survivors with pensions, in addition to a whole range of welfare services through its funding of 300 agencies around the world. “I was checking in with a survivor friend and reminding him to stay in. He said: ‘God saved me once, he’ll save me again, but maybe I can give him a little help this time’.”
Schneider says that the defiance and grit of survivors is inspiring to him and his staff as they rise to meet the challenge of ensuring their safety and wellbeing; survivors are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“The most devastating part of this is that the specific structures we’ve built over years to provide dignity to survivors are now the ones that are the most dangerous,” he says. “We have a very robust network for homecare attendants that cater to 75,000 survivors around the world, which enables them to live in their homes independently. But now those two to three aids who come in to clean, shop, provide company, medical care, etc, are introducing risk factors to that survivor.
“Interestingly, Holocaust survivors aren’t very anxious right now,” says Eva Fogelman, PhD, a New York-based clinical psychologist who specializes in Holocaust survivor and second and third generation post-trauma. “There’s a sense that this is nothing compared to what they went through.”
For survivors, who lost so much in life, family carries extra weight. The prospect of Seders without loved ones at the table hangs heavy, as do the cancelled Yom Hashoah commemorations, which are a yearly opportunity for survivors to gather with their own, remember loved ones and grieve with those who truly comprehend their inexplicable experiences.
“April is very emotional time for survivors, starting with Passover and then you go right into Yom Hashoah,” says the Claims Conference’s Schneider. “If you live in Israel, there’s also Independence Day, Memorial Day, all within a two-week period. So you go from incredible highs to lows, and it’s very emotional under normal times.”
For comic relief that’s lighter on the dark irony, singer and YouTube sensation Randy Rainbow’s “The Coronavirus Lament” seems to be hitting all the right notes.
“We circulate a lot of jokes, too, many about toilet paper,” says Goldstein. “The important thing is to stay connected, despite social distancing.”