Ilyse Muser Shainbrown

Hanging Onto Time

Last week, I was unsure of myself when sharing my first blog comparing our current times to the Holocaust. I am usually not one to draw comparisons to the Holocaust, and this is in no way attempting to compare a pandemic with the state-sanctioned murder of millions, but I’ve received a lot of feedback how the lessons learned from the Holocaust can help us confront this very different crisis. So here is my 2nd in the series of weekly blogs of Coronavirus and the Holocaust. I sure hope it does not last long – but as long as it does, look for a blog each week.

Under normal circumstances, we know that we can get through anything when there is an ending in sight. And I find myself saying often these days, if I knew when this would end and could have a countdown, I would be fine. I could utilize the time well, if only I knew when things would go back to normal.

This week’s poignant social media piece on Anne Frank, beseeched people to wise up and stop complaining about being confined in their homes certainly, struck a cord, as I spoke to many Holocaust survivors that were once in hiding. They faced starvation, lack of sunlight, years on end with absolutely nothing to do, on top of the intense fear of being discovered – which ultimately would lead to their deaths.  This is clearly a far cry from people frustrated with Netflix, texting, Facetime, Houseparty, and Zoom.

But those in hiding during the Holocaust had the incredible ability to somehow figure out how to pass the time. Something many of us are struggling with right now, even with grocery and takeout delivery and lightening fast interned connections.

The reality is that we don’t know when this will end, nor did people during the Holocaust. Holocaust survivors passed the time – which lasted for years – in ways that are unfathomable to us. Without phones, television, the internet. Without the basic needs of food, medicines, sunlight – and yes, without that coveted toilet paper right now. Yet, somehow they kept their spirits up and maintained the will to survive.

Of course many, if they were able to, kept diaries documenting their time and grasped onto anything they might have had in hiding, which wasn’t much. And yet others that really had nothing at all – simply used their minds to be able to pass the time.

One of the most remarkable stories I have heard comes from nothing but ones own thoughts. A dear friend of mine often tells students that while in hiding, he would have meals in his mind, all the favorite things that his mother would cook. Each night, he would recall them and imagine having dinner at his kitchen table. It was the immense desire to have these meals once again that lead to his survival.

Again over the past few days, I spoke with several Holocaust survivors that are in hiding once again in an effort to survive. I found myself amazed with what they are doing to the pass the time. One is painting a bench, another is writing letters to old friends, and a 91 year old from Romania is walking around her apartment tracking her steps to get to two miles a day. As one said so proudly, I do whatever I can to just survive – that’s me, I am a survivor.

Although we are going through a challenging time right now, let’s all remember who the true survivors are.

About the Author
Ilyse Muser Shainbrown was a former Middle and High School History teacher who now holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Over the years she has done extensive research on various portions of the Holocaust and other acts of genocide including, Rwanda, the Belgian Congo and Bosnia. Currently, Ilyse Muser Shainbrown is the Director of Holocaust Education at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. Through both programs, Ilyse works to ensure that Holocaust education is taught broadly in public, private and parochial schools throughout Essex, Union, Morris and Sussex counties.
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