Even in enforced isolation, we must hear survivors’ stories

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Three boxes and two milk cans used to store the Oyneg Shabbos archive.
Public domain

By Guila Franklin Siegel

“White House Projects 100,000 to 240,000 coronavirus deaths.” “World reaches one million coronavirus cases.”


The astronomical numbers associated with COVID-19 can be numbing. But Jews, more than anyone, know how to translate abstract numbers into human stories of individual suffering, bravery and loss. We have perfected the essential art of turning sterile data points into moments of uncomfortable reckoning and searing grief, to ensure the precious lives lost in the flames of the Holocaust are truly never forgotten. Remembrance is a sacred obligation to our people, one that not even a global pandemic can obviate.

How ironic that our Holocaust survivors, who have only a short number of years left to personally share their testimonies, are the ones among us most in need of physical separation during the current pandemic. For as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, every single person-to-person encounter between a survivor and those charged with carrying forth their legacy matters; every exchange
between survivor and teen is another bulwark against the erasure of history.


For decades, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington has provided a public space for these moments of sharing and revelation, mourning and remembrance. Our communitywide Yom HaShoah commemorations, which include readings of victims’ names and teen education programming, attract more than 1,000 participants each year.

Faced now with an unprecedented public health crisis, we refused to consider cancelling an event that means so much to so many. Instead, we looked for inspiration and guidance to the very people whose sacrifices and courage we honor each year.

Those of us who live relatively comfortable lives, with the world literally at our smartphone-ready fingertips, have been left frightened and unmoored over the last several weeks. But our Holocaust survivors illuminate a pathway to navigate these uncharted waters. A meme that went viral over the last two weeks observed, “Everyone stuck at home just remember Anne Frank and her whole family lived in an attic for four years!” Historical inaccuracy and oversimplification aside, there is truth to the notion that however devastating this pandemic is, perspective and resilience are key. We may be under a stay-at-home order, but we are not in hiding from persecution, fearing for our lives.

Resilience. Flexibility. Resourcefulness. At a time when our survivors are enduring enforced isolation and the specter of a deadly virus taking their brothers and sisters in exponential numbers, we must double down on our commitment to hear their testimonies and affirm that we will carry on their legacy. And we must be resourceful and flexible enough to find alternate means to bridge the physical divides that have been imposed on us.

So, we teach our survivors how to use Zoom. We record them telling their stories in front of their computer screens. We ask their spouses to video record them lighting memorial candles in their kitchens and living rooms. We connect them virtually to thousands of Jewish teens and adults in the Washington area, across the nation and even around the world. We invite community members to stand in their own homes for the Kaddish and El Maleh Rachamim, physically divided but united in kavanah, intentional prayer and devotion.

And in so doing, we reach greater numbers of hearts and minds than we ever could have with an in-person commemoration.

For we know that memory, honor and love are unbound by the limits of physical space and time. The martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto who created the Oyneg Shabbos archive knew this — they left a treasure trove of documents and art buried for others to find after the war. To read those materials is to transcend the physical, worldly barriers that separate us, connecting souls across time and distant miles.

Fortunately, the distance we must traverse this Yom HaShoah is much shorter and more easily conquered, thanks to Zoom, YouTube, smartphones and other technology. When we gather on April 19 at 1 p.m. for our virtual Yom HaShoah commemoration, or another of the JCRC’s online encounters with Holocaust survivors, we will be as inextricably linked as if we were sitting together in a synagogue sanctuary. And our survivors will know that even as they are forced to be apart from their loved ones, they are surrounded by a grateful, reverential, loving community.

Guila Franklin Siegel is associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

2 COMMENTS

  1. The isolation affecting most of us is familiar to me. I recall vividly living in hiding for two years in Belgium during the German occupation to avoid deportation as a Jewish child to a concentration camp. I was then 10 to 12 years old, not attending school, avoiding youths my age and rarely stepping out of our hidden refuge in the Belgian Ardennes. Through my life, the isolation and stress of those early years have ever been in my memory. I still remember the anxiety and fear of being apprehended.

    Today’s restrictions resonate, even at 87 years old.

    Fred A. Kahn, Bethesda

  2. Holocaust survivor reminisce isolation in hidingThe isolation affecting most of us is familiar to me. I recall vividly living in hiding for two years in Belgium during the German occupation to avoid deportation as a Jewish child to a concentration camp. I was then 10 to 12 years old, not attending school, avoiding youths my age and rarely stepping out of our hidden refuge in the Belgian Ardennes. Through my life, the isolation and stress of those early years have ever been in my memory. I still remember the anxiety and fear of being apprehended.

    Today’s restrictions resonate, even at 87 years old.

    Fred A. Kahn, Bethesda, 4512 West VIRGINIA aVENUE, BETHESA, MARYLAND 20814-4612; TELEPONE 301-654-7716; E-MAIL ADDRESS: [email protected]

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