I have been watching with envy as people post their vaccine moments. Some of my friends were tearful when they rolled up their sleeve. Some were relieved. Some said a Shehichiyanu and some held signs or symbols to honor loved ones lost to COVID-19.
There was the son who vaccinated his father, the mother who vaccinated her daughter and in Toronto, there was Frances Sacks, a 98 year old Holocaust survivor, who despite suffering from dementia and despite the mask and face shield worn by the doctor who was administering her vaccine, she immediately recognized the doctor as Dr. Jordana Sacks – Frances’ granddaughter.
There was the volunteer Chevra Kadisha worker who was probably summoned to perform the Jewish purification rite – the highest form of Chesed that one can offer – more times in the past year than most volunteers probably undertake in a lifetime. She was literally jumping with joy after receiving her vaccine.
There was the story of Mira Rosenblatt, a 97 year old survivor of Kristallnacht, the Gross-Rosen concentration camp and a death march. Mira received her second shot on February 2nd – the day that New York City was pounded with seventeen inches of snow. That would not stop her. She got her vaccine and while she was in the post-vaccination waiting area – she told her story of survival to the nurses standing beside her. After her shot, Mira rushed home so she could attend a Zoom meeting sponsored by the American Society for Yad Vashem where she was scheduled to speak to the 250 people in attendance on the call, including some of the nurses who had administered the vaccine to her only hours earlier.
And there is Johnny (Ephroim) Jablon, a 95 year old Holocaust survivor who made sure that his vaccine would be inserted into his arm just above the number 174131 that was tattooed on his arm on February 21st, 1944, the fateful day that he arrived in Auschwitz. The vaccine that would now allow Johnny to get back to his sacred mission of telling his story, connecting with teenagers and ensuring that the world never forgets the inhumanity that he suffered would be inserted a mere inches from the very indelible evidence of that inhumanity.
As the vaccination campaign in Canada seems to be kicking into a higher gear and as I begin to contemplate my “vaccine moment”, I give pause to think about what was lost during this pandemic.
In late January of 2020, just before the onset of the pandemic, I was privileged to attend the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz with 150 Auschwitz survivors. During the ceremonies and speeches, I kept hearing the premonition that this would be last gathering of so many Auschwitz survivors in one place at one time.
This is a sentiment that those of us who have been privileged to return to Poland with Holocaust survivors sadly understand. Although we dread the day when survivors will no longer be able accompany these journeys and tell their stories – we also understand the natural course of life.
Tragically, COVID-19 has unnaturally accelerated that day.
When I take my seat and roll up my sleeve, I will be thinking of the Holocaust survivors – the beacons of hope and inspiration and the front-line workers in the fight against antisemitism – who have succumbed to this cruel illness or who have passed away during the pandemic.
I will be thinking of Margit Feldman, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. Mrs. Feldman passed from complications from COVID-19 in New Jersey just one day shy of her 75th anniversary of her liberation from Bergen-Belsen. Mrs. Feldman’s passing was noted by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy in his April 16th press briefing when he stated “She would share her story of survival and liberation with tens of thousands of students across the state, and served as a founding member of both the New Jersey Holocaust Education Commission and the Holocaust and Genocide Institute at Raritan Valley Community College,”. In her 1996 testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation, Mrs. Feldman spoke of her arrival at Auschwitz, being the last time she saw her parents – but not before her father put his hands on her head and blessed her as would do every Shabbat. She then watched her father endure a terrible beating at the hands of Nazis. Mrs. Feldman’s story is told in her 2003 memoir “Margit: A Teenager’s Journey Through the Holocaust and Beyond”.
I will be thinking of 88 year old Aryeh Even, the first Holocaust survivor in Israel to succumb to COVID-19. Aryeh was born in Budapest in 1932, survived the war and made his way to Israel in 1949 on the ship “Atzmaut”. He enlisted in the Israel Air Force in 1952 and accompanied his wife of 50 years in various diplomatic posts around the world. Aryeh was one of an estimated 900 Israeli Holocaust survivors who succumbed to COVID-19. Like Aryeh Even, each one of them re-built their lives and laid the foundation of the State of Israel.
I will be thinking about Benjamin Levin, a member of Abba Kovner’s partisan group known as the Avengers. Levin’s formative years were spent in the forests of Lithuania where he blew up trains, bridges and sustained Jews trapped inside ghettos as a scout and saboteur. After the war, Mr. Levin reunited with his parents who were murdered by their neighbors in Vilnius when they tried to reclaim their home. Levin swam off the destroyed Altalena smuggled himself into Israel and eventually returned to Europe to assist others make their way to Israel and to raise money and secure ammunition for the fledgling State.
It was said that director Steven Spielberg referred to Mr. Levin as the “Forrest Gump of Jewish History”. A fitting tribute because the tagline for the movie was “The world will never be the same once you’ve seen it through the eyes of Forrest Gump”. How fitting indeed.
Mr. Levin succumbed to COVID-19 in New York City on April 13th, 2020 – the fifth night of Passover. He was 93 years old.
I will be thinking of Gábor Hirsch – an Auschwitz survivor who I had the privilege of meeting in January of 2020 when he made the Herculean effort to travel from his home in Switzerland to attend the commemoration ceremony in Poland, accompanying the Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga.
Gábor was a prominent activist for Holocaust remembrance in Switzerland and he co-founded an organization called the Contact Point for Holocaust Survivors. Gábor lectured to thousands of students and he shared his story, including his last encounter with his mother which he recounts as follows: “At Auschwitz I worked behind the women’s camp. We had to cut the turf. I wanted to see my mother once more and I had brought her my bread ration. We did in fact manage to exchange a few words. But I couldn’t give her my bread. She gave me her ration instead. It was the last time I saw my mother.”
Gábor passed away on August 20th, 2020.
I will be thinking of Icchok (Edward) Klein, a survivor from Montreal. Edward was born in Sieradz, Poland in 1927 and with the onset of the war, he was sent to the Lodz ghetto and eventually to Auschwitz. He then survived a death march to Mauthausen and a second death march to Gunskirchen. Edward’s brothers died fighting as partisans and his parents were murdered by the Nazis. Edward survived and in July 1945 he boarded the last “legal” ship to sail to British Mandate Palestine. Once in Palestine, Edward joined the Palmach and fought in Israel’s War of Independence.
Edward wrote poetry in the Lodz ghetto, a talent that he attributed to bringing him under the protective wing of Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski – the head of the Council of Elders in the Lodz ghetto. Edward’s memoirs during this period are recounted in his book “Inside the Walls”, published by the Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs.
Edward, as his obituary reads, was an avid windsurfer, rock climber, lover of music and had a great curiosity and zest for life. He passed away on March 26th, 2020.
I will be thinking of Rabbi Avraham (Romi) Cohn who passed away at age 92 on his Hebrew birthday. Rabbi Cohn was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929.
His mother and four siblings were murdered in Majdanek.
During the war, Rabbi Cohn was able to supply false identification papers to Jewish refugees and his bravery and actions saved fifty six Jewish families. Rabbi Cohn was eventually arrested by the Nazis and after a daring escape, he was resolved to join the partisans. However, to get to the partisans he had to travel through the last German outpost before reaching the partisan-controlled territory, which he managed to do with a falsified German military travel order. Rabbi Cohn recounted that the Nazis “all shook my hand and wished me luck. They thought I was going to strike a blow for the Reich”. Rabbi Cohn’s wartime experiences are published in his 2001 memoir “The Youngest Partisan: A Young Boy who Fought the Nazis”.
Following his passing, a friend of Rabbi Cohn noted: “As powerful and as prestigious as he was in the real estate industry as a builder and developer, by the same token he was a humble, regular man”. “There was no ego, no aura of greatness with him. He made you feel like a million dollars”.
Rabbi Cohn was trained as a Mohel and he was considered an authority on the ritual. He was reputed to have performed thousands of ritual circumcisions for which he refused any payment.
On January 29th, 2020, Rabbi Cohn led the US House of Representatives in prayer as a guest chaplain on the occasion of the 75th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz. Rabbi Cohn passed away less than two months later on March 24th, 2020.
I will be thinking of brothers Alexander Feingold and Joseph Feingold – they were teenage boys in Warsaw when they lives were shattered in 1939.
Joseph and his father fled east to Russian-occupied territory, endured a Siberian labor camp and ultimately the infamous Kielce pogrom upon their return to Poland after the war. According to Polish historian and author Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, Joseph Feingold was believed to be the last living survivor of that 1946 massacre.
Alexander miraculously survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and a death march. He was liberated on April 15th, 1945 and after months of starvation and ill with dysentery he weighed a mere 88 pounds.
The matriarch of the family – Ruchele – and younger brother Henryk stayed behind in Poland and they were murdered in Treblinka.
The siblings, separated by 18 months in age, were childhood rivals. In his memoir “Joe’s Violin: A Survivor Remembers”, Joseph recounts that as little boys in Warsaw, he and Alexander would always pretend to be Native Americans, with Joseph always playing the role of the chief.
Joseph and his father were reunited with Alexander at a displaced persons camp in Germany and in an oral history to USC Shoah Foundation, Alexander recalled the reunion as a “sad moment”. He could not bring himself to speak about seeing his mother and Henryk for the last time.
Joseph wrote in his memoir: “The feelings of guilt that I have, which I cannot overcome, are still with me”. “Alex never reproached me for being abandoned by his father, or by his older brother, or for anything else that he had to live through and survive. He didn’t reproach me, but he didn’t have to”.
After the war, the brothers settled in New York, they both became architects and lived blocks away from each other.
When Alexander fell ill, Joseph asked if he could visit his brother. His stepdaughter Ame Gilbert was quoted as saying “Joe was wanting to go sit with Alex, to say goodbye and I think, too, to make amends”. The cruelty of this pandemic prevented the two siblings from a last meeting.
Alexander passed away on March 17th, 2020. Joseph passed away four weeks later on April 15th.
After the war, Joseph traded a carton of American cigarettes for a violin and that violin stayed with him until 2016 when he donated the precious instrument to a Bronx High School hoping that the violin, which offered him a much reprieve from the hardship that he suffered, would provide joy to someone else. The story of Joseph and his violin was memorialized in the film “Joe’s Violin”, a 2017 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Short.
Rabbinic literature is full of references to the time period known as Ikvot Meshicha, the time period immediately preceding the ultimate redemption. Some references allude to positive manifestations – prosperity, open miracles, enhanced Torah study – occurring during this time period while other references allude to negative manifestations such as famines, poverty and illness. The Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah alludes to a period of calamity in which the righteous of the generation will perish.
COVID-19 has taken so much from so many and in the cruelest of ways. Indeed, the pandemic has taken so many of the righteous of our generation, our precious Holocaust survivors.
As I take my seat and roll up my sleeve, I will be thinking of their stories. I have resolved that my “vaccine moment” will be to make sure that their stories of heroism and survival are perpetuated. My vaccine moment will be to make sure that their lives and their stories – lives that should have ended peacefully and surrounded by the love and beauty that they created and stories which should have been recounted at overcapacity funeral homes and shiva houses around the world – continue to be told long after the memory of this pandemic fades. For their stories of strength, courage, resilience and rebuilding is exactly the inspiration that we need right now.
May their memories forever be a blessing.
*Dedicated to the memory of David (Didi) Rinzler Z”L, a child survivor of the Chernowitz ghetto, a master raconteur and a friend to many. David passed away of natural causes on January 30th, 2021.