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For Israel’s Holocaust survivors, coronavirus is the plague of loneliness

As Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, 189,500 survivors are trapped indoors and fearful. They have ‘lived through worse,’ but facing pandemic alone at home is major hardship

  • Miriam Grottas Masry delivers a package to a Holocaust survivor ahead of the Passover holiday. (Courtesy)
    Miriam Grottas Masry delivers a package to a Holocaust survivor ahead of the Passover holiday. (Courtesy)
  • Holocaust survivor Sara Melzer and May, a volunteer from the Dor L'Dor organization who has become a close friend. (Courtesy Dor L'Dor)
    Holocaust survivor Sara Melzer and May, a volunteer from the Dor L'Dor organization who has become a close friend. (Courtesy Dor L'Dor)
  • 92-year-old Auschwitz survivor Malka Zaken. (Courtesy)
    92-year-old Auschwitz survivor Malka Zaken. (Courtesy)
  • Passover in isolation by Sara Meltzer (Courtesy)
    Passover in isolation by Sara Meltzer (Courtesy)

Malka Zaken, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor who resides in Tel Aviv, has spent the past month confined to her apartment ever since the Israeli government started imposing a partial lockdown following the outbreak of the coronavirus here.

“I know that I need to be strong and remain positive, as I have been throughout my life and during the worst times imaginable, but how long can this go on?” she asks in frustration.

“I have three children, and they call me and worry about me. But I am widowed, and other than my contact with them I am completely alone,” Zaken tells The Times of Israel.

Zaken was born in the northwestern Greek city of Arta and deported to Auschwitz in Poland during World War II. She arrived at the Nazi concentration camp at the age of 12, and is the sole survivor in her family. “I come from a big family, there were 14 of us. My parents, siblings, everyone died. I am the only who remained.”

After the war Zaken returned to her homeland at the age of 15, “but I realized that there was nothing left for me there. So I decided to move to Israel, and I did so all by myself,” she recalls.

92-year-old Auschwitz survivor Malka Zaken. (Courtesy)

Zaken says that she longs for the simple pleasures that she enjoyed before the pandemic reached Israel. “I could at least go outside and take short walks. Now I can’t,” she laments. However, she stresses that she “refuses to be scared. I have been through a lot in life. I survived Auschwitz as a 12-year-old girl, so I know it will be okay.”

Zaken is one of 189,500 Holocaust survivors who live in the Jewish state. This community, which dwindles by the day, has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic.

Over 15,000 Holocaust survivors died in Israel over the past year, data gathered by the Finance Ministry indicates. More than 31,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel are over 90 years old; their advanced age automatically positions them at the top of the list of populations at risk of contracting the coronavirus and suffering from its lethal complications.

Like the majority of the elderly population in the country, Holocaust survivors have not been able to leave their homes for the past five weeks. As long as the lockdown persists, they are projected to have to stay separated from the rest of society for the weeks, probably months, ahead. Many of them have expressed anxiety over their deteriorating health or informed the authorities that they are afraid of running out of money, food and medicine. But unlike Zaken, most have been too ashamed to articulate their most burning issue, which becomes more pressing as the days in quarantine wear on: Loneliness.

Jenny Pinus, director of operations at Dor L’Dor (Courtesy)

“Forty-two percent of Israel’s elderly population have testified that they experience loneliness in their day to day lives,” says Jenny Pinus, the director of operations of the Dor L’Dor organization. Founded in Tel Aviv in 2010, the social nonprofit acts to create lasting connections between young Israelis and senior citizens in order to bridge generational gaps and alleviate the feeling of solitude that the elderly are plagued by. “This data was relevant before the coronavirus broke out, which has only increased the number of elderly people who feel alone,” says Pinus.

Friends on the other end of the line

Aid groups like Dor L’Dor have been alerted in recent weeks to the challenging situation Holocaust survivors are now facing, and have decided to harness all the means at their disposal to try and help them regain contact with the outside world while they remain in isolation.

A Holocaust survivor receives a visit from Adopt a Safta volunteers. (Courtesy Adopt a Safta)

Pinus explains that before the pathogen began to spread in Israel, her organization operated several programs that facilitated weekly meetings between young volunteers and elderly people. Dor L’Dor has had to adjust its operations, which relied mostly on face-to-face encounters.

“We now work in two main areas,” she elaborates. “One is in the field of mental aid. These are people who lost all of their social circles once the virus broke out, so with that in mind we are now running a program that connects our volunteers to the elderly population via telephone. Our volunteers call the elderly people several times a week to see how they’re doing and to give them a feeling that someone cares about them and that they are not alone.”

The organization is also using advanced technology to provide physical help. Dor L’Dor recently launched a program called Help on the Way, which is based on a smartphone application that connects between their 3,500 volunteers and the elderly people they assist, says Pinus. “With a simple click of a button, they can call us and ask for concrete help with anything – from changing a light bulb to walking their dog. Volunteers get the requests based on their geographical proximity to those who called. That way they can help in a manner that is convenient for them, because it’s already close to where they live.”

Jay Schultz, founder of Adopt a Safta, alongside Cecilia Dunkelman (center), a Holocaust survivor with whom he connected upon moving to Israel. (Courtesy Jay Schultz)

Jay Shultz, founder of the nonprofit Adopt A Safta, echoes Pinus’s concern over Holocaust survivors’ emotional well-being while in confinement. “Loneliness is a disease, and it will affect people’s physical health,” he reflects.

He established his NGO, which pairs between young volunteers and Holocaust survivors, in order to “address this loneliness.” The organization has helped thousands of Holocaust survivors, connecting the volunteers with the elderly based on their area of residence and shared interests.

Two Holocaust survivors receiving a food delivery from Adopt a Safta volunteers. (Courtesy: Adopt a Safta)

“The biggest difficulty for survivors right now,” Shultz says, “is that even if they have friends and family, they are not able to see them.”

During times of routine, Adopt A Safta’s volunteers “assist with day to day issues. If an elderly person needs to contact the authorities for any reason, our volunteers – who we make sure are all Hebrew speakers – help facilitate that.”

“Israel has a phenomenal amount of social welfare services,” Shultz notes, “but for elderly people the biggest problem is access. Whether it be finding telephone numbers and websites or filling forms, that’s where our volunteers come in.”

When the virus broke out in the country “we knew that we had to respond to it, so we immediately stopped the home visits to ensure that the elderly people we help remain safe,” Shultz recalls. “But we instructed our volunteers to double their efforts in terms of the phone calls that they make to keep in touch with the survivors. We also directed them to make sure that they help them with any physical needs they might have, such as going to the pharmacy or the supermarket for them.”

Don’t feel sorry for yourselves

One of the Holocaust survivors who has benefited from the activity of these organizations is 92-year-old Dr. Sara Melzer, a retired academic and artist who lives in north Tel Aviv by herself. Melzer was approached by the Dor L’Dor organization, who put her in touch with a young volunteer who shares her passion for craft and creation.

Holocaust survivor Sara Melzer and May, a volunteer from the Dor L’Dor organization who has become a close friend. (Courtesy Dor L’Dor)

“I live next to my son and my grandson, so I get to see them on a regular basis. We have a very strong connection, which means a lot to me. Ever since the virus broke out I have not been able to see them but they bring me everything I need to my doorstep. And I am also in touch with May, the volunteer from Dor L’Dor, so I don’t feel alone,” she explains.

Melzer was born in Poland and raised in a town close to Krakow. When World War II broke out she was 10. She survived the war with her two parents and seven siblings, who were all forced to flee together from their homeland; their long journey included a deportation to Siberia, a time Melzer says “was full of agony and suffering.” After the war they immigrated to Israel together, and Melzer volunteered to serve in the Israeli army.

“My survival in the Holocaust was the result of many coincidences or lucky accidents,” she says.

Melzer went on to study art and became an educator. The art programs she developed were incorporated into school curriculums throughout the country, and the artworks she has displayed over the years were exhibited both in Israel and abroad. She recently showcased an exhibition that was dedicated to members of her family who died in the Holocaust.

Passover in isolation by Sara Meltzer (Courtesy)

“Because I am an educator and an artist, there are a lot of things that occupy me during this time, and I never get bored,” she says of her time in quarantine. “I spend many hours in front of the computer reading articles, I make art and I write a journal about my time in isolation, in which I express my thoughts and the strange spirit of these times,” she notes.

Melzer calls on fellow Holocaust survivors and people throughout Israel “not to feel sorry for yourselves during this time. Do something, create. Each and every one of us has something that can make us feel fulfilled. You can even use this time to learn new things,” she urges.

“Take for example this corona diary that I’ve been keeping. Only now did I discover that I can spontaneously express my feelings, not just through painting but also in words. I never did this before.”

Melzer says that her experience both as a Holocaust survivor and as a teacher and creator has proven to her “that giving up is not an option. I am sure that there are positive things that can be found, even during periods like these.”

Helping those who were forgotten

Despite the optimism expressed by survivors like Melzer, for others these are still tension-fraught days. Another group aiding Holocaust survivors during these trying times is the Organization for Greek Survivors of Concentration Camps in Israel. Established in 1953, the organization aims to keep alive the memory of the Jewish community in Greece, which lost 60,000 of its members in the Holocaust.

Miriam Grottas Masry (center) delivers a package to a Holocaust survivor ahead of the Passover holiday. (Courtesy)

Miriam Grottas Masry, the deputy chairwoman of the organization and the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Saloniki who were incarcerated in Auschwitz during the war, says that the “story of Greek Holocaust survivors is hardly known to the world. Only recently we have been able to increase awareness. Personally, when I would tell people that my parents are from Greece and that they’re Holocaust survivors, they wouldn’t believe me.”

In recent weeks, the organization’s 800 volunteers have been working nonstop to deliver food packages and face masks to Holocaust survivors who are stuck indoors. Grottas Masry shares that members of the community with whom she has been in contact “are quite scared, but they are not utterly terrified because these are life-affirming people. They have been through the very worst, so this doesn’t incapacitate them.”

Isaac Burla, 93, receives a food package outside his Tel Aviv home. (Courtesy)

One of the survivors that her organization has helped is Isaac Bourla. The 93-year-old, who hails from Saloniki, was a teenager when Nazi troops invaded his homeland in 1941. He was deported to Auschwitz in the winter of 1943.

“I was brought to Buna, a labor camp which is also known as Auschwitz III,” he tells The Times of Israel. “I stayed there for 20 months. In January of 1945, the Germans began to evacuate all the camps in Poland and move the prisoners from there to Germany. This was the death march.”

Bourla recalls that he “walked about 40 kilometers in the snow, and for six or seven days we received no food or water. It was the most terrible time of my life.”

Eventually, he was transferred to Buchenwald – the German concentration camp. On April 11, 1945, a day Bourla says he “will never forget for as long as I live,” the U.S. Army liberated the camp. “When I arrived in the camps I was 15 and a half years old. I was liberated exactly two years later, at 17 and a half years old. I am the only survivor of my family. No one remained,” he shares.

Bourla was taken to France several months later, where he stayed at a repatriation camp. He later moved to Israel, where he worked for 40 years as a tour guide. Today he lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, and has three children as well as grandchildren.

He notes that he abides by the restrictions imposed by the Health Ministry and has not left his house for over a month. “I stay at home, I don’t go out. My son is very kind and he comes by to give me food supplies.”

Asked whether he is afraid of getting sick, Bourla responds decidedly that he is “not scared. I’m optimistic. I think it will be over in the same way that it started. I’ve seen worse things in my life, nothing scares me anymore.”

A safe home

While Bourla is fortunate to have children who can help him throughout these days of uncertainty, many Holocaust survivors who are childless are forced to handle the crisis alone.

Shimon Sabag, founder of the organization Yad Ezer L’Chaver. (Courtesy Yad Ezer L’Chaver)

Shimon Sabag, the CEO of the Haifa-based Yad Ezer L’Chaver organization, points out that it’s this group among the survivors that is suffering the most right now. Twenty-five years ago, while he was handing out food to people in need who reside in the northern city, he had a life-changing encounter that brought this realization home.

“We used to organize food deliveries according to numbers, each individual we aided was marked by a number. One of the people we helped was a Holocaust survivor. He told me: ‘I don’t need a number, I already have one tattooed on my arm.’

At that moment I thought to myself: This can’t be. It can’t be that a person who survived horrors now has to be standing in line, waiting for a food donation.”

A street view of the home in Haifa that provides a shelter for elderly Holocaust survivors. (Courtesy Yad Ezer L’Chaver)

Sabag decided to open a home for Holocaust survivors, where he currently houses 100 of them. “These are all people whose financial situation is difficult. The vast majority of them don’t have families,” he says of the residents, whose ages range from 83 to 100.

“Everything changed since the virus broke out, but we try to keep the members of our community entertained and happy,” Sabag adds. “We deliver all three meals to the doorstep of their rooms because we had to shut down the dining room, we have musicians come and play music for them in the halls. And we take them out for very brief walks within the compound whenever possible.”

Organizations like Sabag’s operate year-round, but survivors like Bourla are concerned that most of Israeli society remembers them just on memorial days or when disasters such as the coronavirus strike. “I wrote a book about my life in the camps,” he says. “People who were not there… you can never imagine, you can never understand what life was like in a concentration camp. And these testimonies must live on, because soon we will not be here to share them.”

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