When registration opened for what was billed as the world’s largest gathering of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, Nathan Leipciger was the first to sign up. Leipciger, a 92-year-old Auschwitz survivor who lives in Toronto, had helped to organize an earlier such conference, and knew that this one — dubbed Liberation 75, marking three-quarters of a century since the liberation of Nazi concentration camps and the end of World War II — would be even more of a landmark moment. More than 10,000 people, including students and educators, were expected to attend the event from May 31 to June 2 in Toronto.
Now, however, the international gathering has been postponed to 2021 due to the ongoing pandemic. But, given that survivors are now in their 80s and 90s, many are aware that the chances for such a gathering are dwindling — and so are their opportunities to personally encourage the next generation to dedicate themselves to Holocaust education. “Liberation 75 was the last hurrah,” Leipciger tells TIME. “[At the] 80th anniversary, there will be exponentially fewer of us.”
There are around 400,000 Holocaust survivors worldwide and about 85,000 in the United States alone, according to estimates by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference). But the pandemic has already taken its toll on the group. Recent COVID-19 victims have included Kristallnacht survivor David Toren, 94, a lawyer who fought to recover Nazi-looted art, and Siberian labor camp survivor Joseph Feingold, 97, whose gift of a violin to a Bronx preteen inspired an Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary short.
Not knowing when it will be safe to travel again, many survivors are trying to make the most of what is possible, keeping in touch with video chats and phone calls. As they do so, many are finding that these virtual gatherings are meeting an important need — both for their own mental health, and for a world that needs to hear their perspective.
So, with Liberation 75 postponed, Toronto-area survivors will be meeting online on Sunday. Since April 12, many have been chatting on Zoom every weekend, a gathering organized by local Holocaust-education advocate Lily Kim. Leipciger himself calls survivors who are living alone weekly to check in. These efforts are two of several virtual gatherings and phone banks reaching out during the pandemic to Holocaust survivors — a population that is vulnerable, not only because seniors are especially at-risk, but also because the experience of living in the time of COVID-19 may trigger memories of the isolation and helplessness they experienced more than 75 years ago.
“Some of the survivors are scared to death,” says Dr. Charles Silow, a son of survivors and Director of the Program for Holocaust Survivors and Families of Jewish Senior Life in the Detroit area. He hosts Zoom calls with survivors in places from Amsterdam to Poland. “One of the hallmark symptoms of trauma is the fear of the return of the tragic event, and survivors typically are on guard for bad things to happen. These are scary times for everyone, and I think for the survivors, more so.”
Survivors are affected by the economic damage, like so many others. Of the roughly 36,000 survivors who live in the New York City area — the epicenter of the pandemic in America — nearly 40% are living in poverty. Several organizations are stepping in to help. In early April, the Claims Conference announced the creation of a $4.3 million Holocaust-survivor emergency assistance fund. Over the last two months, the new 333 Charity has helped fund the UJA Federation of New York’s weekly food deliveries to 1,525 survivor households, and some restaurants have introduced a way for customers to donate meals to Holocaust survivors. The Blue Card, a social services organization that serves survivors on or below the poverty line, has been providing food deliveries and direct payments.
But the psychological side of things does set this population apart.
“I’ve been here before,” says Fred Lessing, 84, a psychologist in the Detroit area and a child survivor from the Netherlands, of the war-like atmosphere in the U.S. during the coronavirus lockdown. “Not a day goes by that I’m not crying, and I’m crying about what’s happening here, but it’s triggered off by the past,” Detroit’s Lessing tells TIME. “I feel as though to have merged together my Holocaust past and what’s happening here, and I can’t separate them anymore, and so I cry.” In 30 years of lecturing about his life during the Holocaust, he says, “I’ve never cried about those years” until now.
During The Blue Card’s first tele-therapy conference call for survivors, on May 21, Dr. Eva Fogelman, a psychologist who counsels Holocaust survivors, explained the roots of these feelings. Some survivors are “haunted” by memories of quarantining before resettling in other European countries or in the United States. And news coverage of medical-supply shortages and of cities being overwhelmed by dead bodies may be reminiscent of the lack of medical care during the Holocaust. She’s also observed that survivors have told her they’re less likely to seek needed medical treatment, and more afraid of sickness. “Illness was equated with death,” Fogelman told a participant during the session. “Jews in ghettos saw sick people dying because there was no medical care to be had. In concentration camps, sick people were killed because they weren’t fit for work.”
At the same time, however, survivors of major trauma may be uniquely equipped to face the needs of a moment like this one — and that’s where the virtual gatherings can help them not only cope with the moment, but help others do the same. In fact, some Holocaust survivors to whom TIME spoke said they’re even finding it hard to keep up with their virtual calendars, with people around the world calling on them as a source of wisdom and hope.
Lessing calls this strength “soldier mode,” and Leipciger says it’s a matter of knowing “you have to make the best with what you have and not dwell on what you have lost.”
“[Americans] complain so much about being home, I don’t get it,” says Goldie Jacoby, 83, in Palm Springs, Calif., who was 6 years old when her family hid in a pig sty in Poland during the Holocaust. For her, exercising that resiliency means pushing through arthritis to make more than 100 face masks for friends, family and even a local seniors’ home. “We were ten people hiding in a barn. We didn’t have room to sleep we slept on each other’s shoulders. There was no pencil, no paper, no nothing. Just sitting and waiting and waiting and sitting and starving. Lice all over us. Hungry all of the time, whimpering with tears.”
Dr. Miriam Klein Kassenoff, 83, Director of the University of Miami Holocaust Teacher Institute, a child survivor born in what is now Slovakia, who was on the run for seven months from 1940 to 1941, says Zoom has allowed her to say busy by giving and attending lectures, to chat with family and to do meditation classes. “I believe survival in life depends on looking forward to something, having hope,” she told TIME.
Dr. Robert Krell, 79, a retired psychiatrist in Vancouver, British Columbia, who says he left the house a total of three times in three years while in hiding in the Netherlands between the ages of 2 and 5, says his 14-year-old grandson recently asked him how it feels to not be able to leave home today. “I told him I live a fairly comfortable life doing mostly what I’ve always done, and have them around, so it’s an entirely different circumstance,” he says. “The only thing I’m deprived of is kisses and hugs [from my children and grandchildren], but not their attention and love.”
Jack Holzberg, 94, a survivor of four concentration camps and now of COVID-19, attributes his survival to “luck.” As the Queens, N.Y., resident tells TIME, “I never thought I would survive [the Holocaust]. Life is lucky. You never know some things. You never know what’s tomorrow. I survived. I don’t know. That’s all.”
On the May 21 call, Fogelman became emotional as she told survivors how much society can learn from this kind of attitude. “During this pandemic, Holocaust survivors’ resilience is exemplary,” she said. “Young people today, living through this pandemic, want to know how you survived unimaginable conditions. Your stories provide hope to those today who feel hopeless, [who feel] that life will never be the same again.”
And the survivors too know just how much their own experience can help with that: Max Eisen, 91, an Auschwitz survivor in Toronto, says that, for his own dose of wisdom, he has turned to the book Man’s Search for Meaning, by another concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl.
“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed,” Frankl wrote. “When we are no longer able to change a situation…we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Correction, June 4
The original version of this story misstated in one instance the status of the Liberation 75 conference. It has been postponed, not canceled.