They Survived the Holocaust. Now they’ve Come Together to Endure the PandemicBreaking News
tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, COVID-19
We all know this pandemic has been difficult for everyone. But there’s one group of senior citizens our locked-down world is affecting especially hard: the men and women who had years of their lives stolen from them while running from the Nazis or being imprisoned by them. Not one of them ever got those years back. Now in their 80s and 90s, these last survivors of the Holocaust have been shut away for another year. With the clock ticking, some will never again meet with families and friends.
When Vienna briefly lifted its lockdown last August, I met 90-year-old Helga Kinski, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz who loved speaking with school kids almost as much as they enjoyed meeting her. We laughed and spoke about books we’d been reading. A few days later, I received a phone call: Helga fell. She was no longer with us.
When you work at an oral history institute that has spent years interviewing Holocaust survivors, you expect to lose them. That’s why, in 2006, we started holding monthly meetings for them in Vienna and Budapest. There’s nothing they enjoy more than meeting with high school students.
Then came last March, and our monthly meetings stopped. The Vienna Jewish community set up a hotline for older community members and sent masks to those over 60. The Jewish youth club manned the phones to call everyone to see if they needed anything — cash, groceries, medicine or psychological help.
Tanja Eckstein, the woman who interviewed most of our survivors in Austria, now phones the survivors in our club regularly — all 90 of them.
A few weeks ago, thanks to the Austrian Federal Ministry of Health and the City of Vienna, the Jewish community arranged to vaccinate every Holocaust survivor in the city.
Then some of our colleagues came up with an idea: to send a book to our survivors every month and filter those orders through a local bookshop that has been struggling. The book club idea caught on, and friends now send books to Holocaust survivors in Prague, Budapest, Sofia and soon to those in Bratislava. Every book sale is filtered through yet another bookshop.
Those in our Vienna club with macular degeneration — hardly uncommon among 95- to 99-year-olds — now receive boxes of Viennese chocolates every month. Raise your hand if you think someone complained.
Since lockdown isn’t going to end soon enough, we started a phone-a-joke program, and twice each month actors and comedians are phoning Holocaust survivors to share stories with them.
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