The Holocaust as an underlying condition

By Steve Hendrix and Shira Rubin, Washington Post

In Israel, the pandemic takes an emotional toll on survivors of Nazi atrocities.

HAIFA, Israel — For 10 grinding months, Shimon Sabag has worked to keep the coronavirus from devastating one of Israel’s most vulnerable populations: the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors living out their final years in the Jewish state.

Now he’s worried about the pandemic endgame.

“This is the moment of truth,” Sabag said of the nail-biting contest between an exploding resurgence of covid-19 cases and Israel’s aggressive vaccination program. “Holocaust survivors see the finish line, but emotionally they are collapsing.”

In this hilly port city that is home to the country’s largest population of survivors, Sabag runs Yad Rosa, one of several private charities straining to ensure that lives that began in one mass tragedy don’t end in another.

Shimon Sabag founded Yad Rosa 20 years ago. The charity has been transformed by the pandemic. (Corinna Kern for The Washington Post)

Israel’s remaining 192,000 registered survivors are a community both revered and neglected. A quarter live below the poverty line, and the underfunding of programs meant to help them is a chronic scandal made worse by the country’s political and budget paralysis of recent years. A government report in October showed that only 30 percent of funds allocated for survivors had been delivered because of bureaucratic red tape.

The first Israeli to die of covid-19 was an 88-year-old Hungarian who had hidden out as an adolescent after his father was taken to Nazi Germany’s Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Since then about 5,300 survivors have been infected and 900 have died, according to government figures. But beyond the physical toll, this population of survivors — elderly, often isolated and haunted by memories — is uniquely at risk. The sudden closing of the country has made for a year of crisis for many of them.

“I haven’t been able to breathe the air for months,” Jenya Rosenstein, 85, said by phone from the cramped Tel Aviv apartment that now reminds her of Mogilev-Podolsk, the transit camp in Ukraine where she was beaten and burned as a child. “It is like I’m back in prison.”

Survivors have been eligible for the early rounds of Israel’s vaccine program, but many required special assistance to reach the inoculation centers. Yad Rosa’s staff drove 1,800 survivors to get their shot in just two weeks.

As Israel waits for immunity to build and the infection rate to wane, advocates worry that survivors are at the end of their emotional ropes.

Shutov, a Yad Rosa manager, delivers food to Holocaust survivor Yelena Samueleno, 92. (Corinna Kern for The Washington Post)

Recent research shows that while many survivors — a resilient group almost by definition — are holding up well, others are suffering higher rates of post-traumatic stress, loneliness and fear than the general population. A Bar-Ilan University study says that survivors who experienced tuberculosis, dysentery and other diseases that were rampant in the concentration camps are the most likely to be feeling anguish after months of isolation and watching their televisions repeat dire updates about the growing global death count.

“They’re returning back to memories of the ghetto, of the camps, of death,” said Isabella Greenberg, a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of survivors who is seeing a spike of psychoses and cognitive decline among her patients. “Some of my patients feel that this is like Auschwitz.”

For Sabag, the pandemic has transformed the survivors’ support network he founded and has run in Haifa for 20 years. Yad Rosa maintains a complex of apartment buildings for about 100 survivors in central Haifa. Before the virus, it ran a common dining hall and social events that included a yearly beauty contest. The staff handed out 130 meals a day to survivors in the surrounding community.

When Israel’s first national lockdown was imposed in March, all the social contact ended. Foreign health aides fled the country, leaving patients with no help. Even those survivors strong enough to venture out were afraid of being infected on a bus or in a grocery store.

The panicked calls started immediately.

“They crashed our phones,” Sabag said in his new call center on a recent morning, recounting the chaos of the past months amid a cacophony of conversation and shouted consultations. “Coronavirus taught us to change quickly.”

The group dispatched a mobile dentistry van and began providing rides to doctor’s appointments for survivors afraid of riding the bus. The small call center staffed by 40 volunteers began to phone thousands of survivors a day, providing a moment of human contact and checking on their needs for food and medicine.

With layoffs and school closures across Israel came a flood of volunteers. Idled contractors built food bank storage and did household repairs in survivors’ homes. Students were recruited to pay regular visits — distanced and masked — to “adopted” survivors. One student spotted a utility cutoff notice unopened on a table, and Yad Rosa was able to pay the bill.

Yad Rosa doubled, then quintupled, its capacity. With emergency funding from the New York-based Bnai Zion Foundation and other donors, the charity hired a caterer and began delivering more than 1,000, and now 2,000, frozen meals a day to apartments and senior centers around the city.

Paid contractors, along with volunteers from the army and police and ultra-Orthodox Jews who do community service in lieu of enlisting in the military, now make 4,500 phone calls a day, Sabag said. Clients who are sick or in emotional distress are called more than once.

When someone on the call list doesn’t respond, operators try a neighbor or family member, if there is one. If that doesn’t work, they dispatch a staffer on one of a fleet of scooters to check on the person. Staffers often find a senior who has fallen or needs emergency care.

On one wall of the call center, a widescreen monitor showed one such response unfolding in real time. A woman had called to say she was nearly out of food. Half an hour later, a staffer zipped through the city on a scooter, his ride captured on his body camera in dizzying high definition. It relayed his arrival at an apartment and the shaky gratitude of an elderly woman when he carried in a box of food: 14 frozen meals (chicken schnitzel, couscous, green beans) and 10 cans of tomatoes, spinach and other vegetables.

Yad Rosa staffers peered at the screen, checking the cluttered room for safety hazards or other potential signs of trouble. “This is a way for the whole office to see into their homes,” Sabag said.

Yad Rosa has also installed cameras in 120 homes, part of a pilot program for remote elder care that Sabag says could be rolled out to 30 new survivor support centers in Israel.

“What they’re doing is taking the technological advances that we’re using in many parts of our lives and using it to help the most vulnerable,” said Ari Lamm, CEO of the Bnai Zion Foundation, which supports Yad Rosa’s expansion plans.

So far, none of the Holocaust survivors who live in Yad Rosa housing have died of covid-19, although two others living in the surrounding community have.

For many, the hardest part is simply hanging on.

Renate Kaufmann, who opened her door to a Yad Rosa volunteer bringing a requested wheelchair, has been cooped up for months. The 83-year-old is eager to emerge but willing to wait, a lesson in patience she said she learned during two years of living in secret rooms and cramped hiding spaces in Nazi Germany.

“Who is safe?” she asked. “There is no safe place in this world.”