Rosalie Simon feels safe high in the sky in her 24th floor apartment as the coronavirus pandemic forces her into semi-isolation.
But she recognizes the familiar feeling creeping under the door. The sense of death is all around again.
It’s an eerie echo from her childhood. She felt the same thing, on a vastly larger scale, when her Czechoslovakian family was sent to live in an attic in a Jewish ghetto. Then again at the death camps at Auschwitz and Dachau.
And right up to the day 75 years ago when she was being transported to be shot and put in a mass grave with other Jews before American soldiers ran up to the train and liberated them.
Simon, a longtime resident of Margate in Atlantic County, is a healthy great-grandmother now. She’s riding out the coronavirus pandemic alone in an apartment in a complex with other retirees near her children in Long Island.
She’s playing it safe. She has no visitors. Her groceries are being delivered. She’s only going outside in her mask and gloves for walks, where her family can check on her from a distance.
But the Holocaust survivor has heard at least seven neighbors in her sprawling apartment complex have died from COVID-19 disease.
“People are dying every day,” said Simon, 88. “It’s a bad situation — but not equal to the Holocaust.”
If you’re tempted, as some have on social media, to compare your coronavirus quarantine to Anne Frank hiding in an attic for years during World War II, just stop, Holocaust survivors say. You have your televisions, your cell phones, plenty of food and the ability to go outside. No one is trying to kill you. No one is selecting you for death because of your religion.
The virus is taking lives, but it’s not the Nazis, Simon says. There is no evil here, she notes. Only tragedy.
“There’s no way you can compare the Holocaust to this,” Simon says. “Six million Jews were killed. We can not compare that to this … If I want to stay safe, I obey the rules. Stay home.”
Worldwide, there are an estimated 400,000 Holocaust survivors left. It’s unclear how many are living in the U.S. or in New Jersey. But Holocaust educators say as we cope with the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath there is a lot to learn from those who have already survived the unthinkable.
Recognizing Holocaust survivors have a unique perspective on the current crisis, Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg has started a weekly online Zoom meeting series titled “Resilience During Challenging Times: Testimonies That Provide Hope.” Each online lecture will feature survivors sharing Holocaust stories and their advice on living through a crisis via a live video chat open to the public.
“I thought we all could find solace and wisdom from those who survived the Holocaust. The survivors and their descendants can share insight on resilience so that we can find hope even in our current circumstances,” said Michelle Edgar, program specialist for t\u200bhe college’s Institute of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
So far, seven Holocaust survivors and other speakers have signed on to speak each Friday between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. for the program, which will run until May 29. (Members of the public can email the program coordinator for information about how to join the video call.)
“There is no comparison and this is not the Olympics of suffering,” said Gail Hirsch Rosenthal, director of the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University. “But they are role models for us. They are role models of resilience … They are role models of starting over again.”
Holocaust survivors know something about mourning loved ones when you can’t say goodbye in person o attend a funeral. They know something about rebuilding your life when the economy is in shambles and all of your money is gone. They know something about holding on to hope when all seems lost, Rosenthal said.
At the first session hosted by Raritan two weeks ago, longtime Holocaust educator Maud Dahme spoke via Zoom from her living room to recount her harrowing and heartbreaking story of being hidden at age 6 with her younger sister on a farm and in a fishing village in the Netherlands by Christian members of the Dutch resistance during the Holocaust. Her Jewish parents hid separately for three years in the attic of a car dealership owned by other Christian friends.
When the Netherlands was liberated, Dahme and her sister did not recognize their parents when they finally came to the farm to reunite with their young daughters. Nearly all of the rest of their extended family had been killed by the Nazis.
With no money or possessions, the family started over and eventually moved to the U.S. Dahme became a flight attendant, married and had four children. She spent five years as president of the New Jersey Board of Education and continues to advocate for Holocaust education.
People from as far away as Germany, Israel and South Africa joined the Raritan Valley Community College Zoom meeting a week ago last Friday to hear Dahme speak about her experiences.
After having survived the hunger and fear of the Holocaust, two bouts with cancer and the loss of her husband, Dahme said she has a unique view of being stuck at home during the coronavirus crisis.
“The most precious thing is to be alive,” said Dahme, 84.
“I realize now, I have a beautiful home. I have warmth. I don’t have to worry about somebody knocking on the door to take me away,” she said. “Yes, there’s many inconveniences. But we’re here and we’re free.”
The coronavirus pandemic is frightening, but it’s not the end of the world, she added.
“I have seen the worst and this is still beautiful,” Dahme said.
With most survivors in their 80s, 90s or older, those who lived through the Holocaust are in the age group considered most vulnerable to COVID-19 disease.
Margit Feldman, who played a key part in the formation of the New Jersey Holocaust Education Commission, died April 14 of coronavirus complications at age 90.
Feldman survived Auschwitz at age 15 by lying about her age so she could be sent to a work camp. Then, she survived several other concentration camps, including the death march to the Bergen Belsen camp, where British troops liberated her. She had “A23029” tattooed on her left arm.
Feldman died the day before the 75th anniversary of her liberation from Bergen Belsen.
Gov. Phil Murphy used part of a daily coronavirus press conference to honor Feldman and her extraordinary life.
“Margit’s legacy is best captured in her work to ensure that the world never forgets the horrors of the Holocaust,” Murphy said.
Feldman helped lead the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education and pushed to make Holocaust education mandatory in the state’s public schools. That mandate still exists, but the head of the commission admitted it is unclear if all school children are getting any lessons about the Holocaust this year as school districts are struggling to deliver lessons remotely.
“They are supposed to do at least one day,” said Doug Cervi, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education. “I think it’s a challenge for everyone at this point.”
Cervi, who is an adjunct professor leading an online class on the Holocaust at Stockton University this semester, said he is among the teachers scrambling to compile videos, movies and online readings for student who have suddenly switched to remote learning.
“Obviously, it’s not the same thing, but it’s better than not doing it at all,” Cervi said.
Holocaust Remembrance Day passed earlier this month with few events or public ceremonies due to restrictions worldwide on large gatherings because of coronavirus. But there were several memorials, including virtual memorial plaques projected on the gates of Auschwitz in memory of those who died.
Those who died at Auschwitz include members of the family of Simon, the Holocaust survivor living in a Long Island high-rise apartment building.
Simon recalled standing on line at Auschwitz with her mother for what they later learned was a gas chamber. On an impulse, Simon, then 12, dashed out of line away from her mother and into another line with her older sisters.
That impulsive moved saved Simon, she says, while her mother unknowingly marched to her death.
Simon said seeing long lines of people she sees on television waiting to be tested for coronavirus or at food banks reminds her vaguely of the lines she saw at concentration camps.
But she reminds herself these lines are not leading to gas chambers. They are lining up to get help.
And no one wanted this virus to happen, she says. No one created this crisis.
“The coronavirus is an act of nature, which everyone is involved in equally,” Simon said. “The Holocaust was a deliberate act.”
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