Remembrance Day and Israeli Independence Day are perhaps the two most sacred holidays that Israeli Jews, and many Jews around the world celebrate. Typically, the first is a day to remember all Israelis that were killed serving their country as well as Holocaust survivors that helped to build the State of Israel. A siren is sounded throughout the country and every citizen pauses: cars, bicycles, and pedestrians alike stop in their tracks to stand still and observe a full monument of silence in observance of their ultimate sacrifice. The next day erupts in celebration of the day that the State of Israel was formally recognized and created. Fireworks are shot off in every city, all work is cancelled and everyone spends the day at parties and barbecuing with friends. This year, the smell of meat grilling in all public spaces will be absent, and the remembrance is more bitter than sweet as we take a moment to reflect on the largely unreported and most at risk COVID-19 victims: Holocaust survivors.
The first Israeli victim to succumb was 88-year-old Arie Evan from Hungary. He had survived as a hidden boy, then a cholera epidemic, and a bad heart, but could not overcome the virus. In Belgium, one of her last remaining survivors, 94-year-old Henri Kichka had lived through Auschwitz, but a microscopic virus did what a legion of Nazis could not, and he died. In Los Angeles, the last living Sonderkommando (Jews that were forced to work the death installations and crematoria) Dario Gabbai, a Greek Jew from Thessaloniki who loved to sing Italian love songs to the pretty girls on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, California, as he sipped espressos with his friends in front of The Coffee Bean died at the Jewish Home for the Aged in the Valley. He was a beloved figure all over the west side of Los Angeles. There are countless others in countless cities, states and countries all over the world. Many of them not only vulnerable because of age, but because the virus spread in nursing and care homes at lightning speed, so much so that it is only in the last week that we are understanding the full scope of the loss.
Jews are storytellers. It is in many ways the oral tradition that forms the fundamental basis of both the Jewish religion and the way of life that practicing Jews choose to live. Jewish Peoplehood typically focus less on sheer numbers, than on the lives themselves, which is why the daily scroll across televisions all over the world with the number of cases and deaths by country is so striking. The focus on a single life isn’t news in a pandemic, and it is antithetical to a Jewish values structure that preaches the mantra of saving one life saves the world.
We all know that COVID-19 preys on the weak, and those underlying health conditions that make the vulnerable, well, more vulnerable, have been committed to our collective memory: heart conditions, diabetes, and of course the “elderly.” As I read the grim news coverage daily, there have been few mentions of survivor deaths. Where they have been mentioned, the sentiment is consistent if not saccharine; they lived long lives with a brief description of their experience during World War II, and they died of COVID-19 because they were in the vulnerable category. The stories are short, the reader sighs and moves onto the next headline. However, I’m not sure that is enough, or even the full piece of this pandemic chapter. These survivors, like the loved ones they lost to the ovens of Auschwitz and the Typhus epidemics of the Ghettos, were denied dignified passings, could not be mourned in proper funerals or shiva rituals, and like their family members, died anonymously and without a loving moment or a goodbye from anyone who loved and cared for them. Additionally, what will become of the material culture they left behind? While it is true that many survivors had families and left legacies, it is equally true that many did not. Perhaps they outlived their spouses and children and their remaining property was with them in their care unit or nursing home. What of their remaining family photos? Letters? Diaries? Mementos?
What we all have lost is significant, and what we will continue to lose is not to be dismissed. However, when the worst of this modern plague is behind us, let us take the time for a postmortem on the underreported end of these lives beyond geographical boundaries and statistical data. Their deaths deserve to be individualized and marked in a public fashion befitting their sacrifices as well as the contributions they made to every society in which they lived their very long lives.