Adam S. Ferziger

Fatal liberations – 1945 and 2021

The tragedy of those who survived the camps only to die soon after is a cautionary tale for a time when vaccination promises to end the pandemic
A survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp eats soon after the camp's liberation by British forces in April 1945. (Imperial War Museum)
A survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp eats soon after the camp's liberation by British forces in April 1945. (Imperial War Museum)

My father-in-law ate his meals quickly, except once. It was 1945 and the American army liberators had just arrived in Gunskirchen, the extension of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Northern Austria where he and thousands of other Hungarian Jews were imprisoned.

Among the first acts of the American soldiers was to unlock the food storage rooms, allowing the starving prisoners to devour as much as they wanted. Like so many, he too intended to gorge. But some older friends warned him that after months of malnutrition and hard labor, they needed to allow their digestive tracts to readjust gradually. Sadly, others were less cautious. Records held in the US Holocaust Museum provide cold numbers that support Zayde’s vivid teenage memory of avoidable deaths. Of the 15,000 Jews who survived the Nazi cruelty at Gunskirchen, more than 1,500 perished after liberation.

This tragic tale of unfulfilled redemption, shared by a wonderful man of few words, has long haunted me for its intimate glimpse into the fragility of life. Never did I imagine that it could serve as a metaphor for the collective experience of Israeli society on the verge of medical liberation from a lethal pandemic. 

We watch with simultaneous joy and horror: just as the ingenious “combatants” of Israel’s kupot holim health funds are succeeding in delivering Pfizer and Moderna’s life-saving “weapons” to millions of “Corona prisoners” with astonishing proficiency, cautiousness and concern toward others demonstrated for months is being abandoned en masse. The inability to meticulously adhere to health guidelines, in conjunction with emergence of more contagious COVID-19 mutations, have produced a precarious reality. This week, astounding numbers were reported on both ends of the spectrum. While 2.5 million Israelis (close to 30% of the country’s population) have been vaccinated (800,000 already twice), and even some high school students have become eligible to receive their doses, the monthly death rates are the highest seen since the pandemic began and the percentage of children hospitalized has increased exponentially.

To be sure, throughout the past year we have been challenged to navigate a treacherous path through private and public health considerations, military security, financial difficulties, domestic stress, social suffocation, and the right to religious and ideological self-expression. This has been extraordinarily trying, and few can say that they never chose their private concerns over public interest. Indeed, there are sectors of Israeli society in which an inordinate number flouted government restrictions from the outset with catastrophic results. All the same, until recently there was a feeling that Israeli society as a whole understood the gravity of the peril and its citizens could be counted upon to act with caution. Just around the time the vaccinations began to arrive, however, collective self-control appeared to wither.

We all know that feeling of impatience that creeps up on us when we sense that we are close to the finish line, about to hand in an exam, in the last semester of university, completing army service etc. By no means, therefore, is my aim to point fingers at people who have been cooped up for much of the last year, especially children and young adults cheated out of a period in early life that can never be replaced. Nonetheless, just as we are on the verge of returning to at least some semblance of our previous existence, I ask myself, how do we summon up our internal “older friends?” That voice of reason that tempers our primal impulses and reminds us that moving too quickly from one extreme to another can result in a self-inflicted death sentence.

Some of us may expect our political and religious elites to serve in that role. Unfortunately, while certain public figures have demonstrated strong leadership and moral fortitude, too many appear driven in part by individual aspirations, control or a willingness to sacrifice the lives of vulnerable populations in order to sustain institutions and collective loyalty.

In the absence of any compelling sweeping solution to the current widespread impatience to escape from lockdowns, social distancing and masked faces, I suggest that at the very least we need to look for ways to raise awareness of the dangers at hand. Despite deep hesitation regarding any hint of cheapening the Holocaust or making direct comparisons to our current predicament, I offer here Zayde’s liberation story as a wake-up call. 

Today is January 27th, 2021, the International Holocaust Commemoration Day established to coincide with the liberation of Auschwitz. Along with joining the world in honoring the memory of millions of victims who died at the hands of the Nazis, this year there is special value in focusing on a small percentage of that incomprehensible number: those tragic figures who survived months and even years of captivity only to succumb to their very understandable rush to begin recapturing lives that had been suspended for too long.

About the Author
Adam S. Ferziger is professor in the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, where he holds the Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Chair, and is co-convener of the Oxford Summer Institute on Modern and Contemporary Judaism, University of Oxford. His most recent monograph, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism (Wayne State University Press, 2015), won the National Jewish Book Award in the category of American Jewish Studies.
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