The coronavirus has jeopardized what little remains of an already fraying living connection to the Jewish past. Rabbi Romi Cohn, who succumbed to the disease in late March at the age of 91, helped rescue 56 Jewish families from Czechoslovakia as a 15-year-old partisan during World War II. Gedalya Korf, who helped coordinate the Chabad Hasidic movement’s clandestine efforts to sustain Jewish life within the Soviet Union, died of the virus at the age of 90 on March 30. The horrors and triumphs of the 20th century have taken an abrupt and irreversible leap even further into memory. The epidemic’s coincidence with Passover, an annual mass historical reenactment, is a chance for Jews to reflect on what we still have, while we still have it.
Holocaust survivors continue to live among us, even though many of them have spent the past three weeks in almost total isolation. In parts of New York, special efforts have been made to ensure they continue to be helped as much as possible. Early in the crisis, the Met Council on Jewish Poverty arranged a special emergency delivery of 300 food packages for survivors. “It’s become more of a crisis hotline,” Elisheva Lock, director of Connect2, said of her organization’s work since the epidemic began. Connect2, a project of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, arranges home visits and food deliveries for some 250 survivors in southeast Brooklyn. The visits have had to be suspended, and Lock says a number of Passover drop-offs had to be conducted by volunteers from the American Red Cross because of a shortage of people available or suitable for any kind of potential face-to-face contact.
In addition to the pressures of being physically cut off from the rest of the world during a long and open-ended quarantine—itself a potentially deadly set of conditions for the elderly—the coronavirus crisis has given fresh life to old memories and to old traumas. At times the epidemic has brought the past even closer. Lock recalled a recent conversation with one survivor. “She said her brother who didn’t survive the war came to her recently in a dream and said, you know you survived plenty of things, and I’m going to help you, and you’re going to survive this too. She said ‘he’s still watching over me.’” Lock mentioned another survivor’s jarringly specific virus-inspired recollection of what it was like to live through something that fewer and fewer people are alive to remember. A woman told her, “I’m saving my cans of food because in Auschwitz I had to sleep on my food, or they would steal it from me.” Lock then offered to check and see if it was OK for me to speak with this survivor, who she said was still very mentally sharp, and was also a writer of sorts.
After the war, Zehava Stessel moved to the United States with her husband, became a librarian in the Jewish materials division at the New York Public Library, earned a doctorate in history at New York University, raised two daughters, and wrote two books, including one about the vanished Jewish community of her hometown in Hungary. I spoke to her by phone, through the Doppler effect of sirens that now constantly ricochets through my north Brooklyn neighborhood.
Stessel’s experience in the Holocaust ran from roughly Passover of 1944, when she was 14 years old, until just before the Passover of the following year. In between, her family was deported from their town in northeastern Hungary, not far from Miskolc, to the ghetto in Košice, now part of Slovakia. She spent three weeks in Auschwitz, where both her parents perished. Then came transfer to Bergen-Belsen, where she and her sister, who currently lives in Israel, were two of 80 prisoners sent to labor at an aircraft factory near Dresden. A deadly typhus epidemic swept through Bergen-Belsen not long after they were sent away. As the Russian army approached, the Germans sent Stessel and the rest of the factory’s inmates on a forced march toward Theresienstadt, outside of Prague.
In her native part of Hungary, deportations didn’t begin in earnest until May and June of 1944. Stessel spent the Passover of 1944 in her home town, which had around 200 Jewish families. The Germans hadn’t occupied the country yet, but Hungary had a pro-fascist government. “We knew already we were in danger,” she says. The holiday still somehow went on as normally as it could. She remembers her grandmother making a barrel of borscht, and then ladling it out to whomever in the neighborhood wanted any, the same way she would any other year. “She was holding on like it was the hope. ... It was important for my grandmother. People came and she was so happy giving out borscht.” Meat was hard to come by in 1944; Stessel remembers her grandmother giving some away anyway, insisting the family could make do with potatoes if they had to. That year, Passover guests included a man who was spending the night at the nearby synagogue, which maintained rooms that travelers could use—the holidays were a time for fundraising for weddings or other future happy occasions. “This person was still dreaming to collect money for his daughter. He didn’t know that after Passover we all would be in Auschwitz.”
In the camps, Stessel recalls religious people keeping scrupulous track of the Hebrew calendar, observing fast days and festivals, recalling as much of the liturgy as they could from memory. Could a holiday still be festive under such unimaginable conditions? Was it possible to find any joy in Jewish observance, even in a death camp? “Not joy,” Stessel said, “but it gives you a feeling like when you remember somebody who passed away and you remember them, you see the face and it gives you some solace.” By Pesach of 1945, Stessel had been liberated, and was on her way to Palestine with her sister. She came to the United States with her husband in the 1950s.
Today, if it were safe to leave her apartment, Coney Island would be a scenic milelong walk away. Stessel, now in her late 80s, still lives by herself. “That you were in Auschwitz doesn’t make you immune from all the troubles,” she explained, although the ongoing crisis didn’t seem to be dominating her thoughts, whatever hardships it imposed.
Before the coronavirus, Stessel had often found herself thinking of her murdered parents and grandparents. “I have this picture; now that I’m getting older the picture is getting brighter and brighter.” Stessel remembers sitting on her mother’s shoes on the way to Auschwitz. “We had no place to sit down. And then she was holding me—how they suffered to make us a little bit more comfortable.”
Stessel is not completely alone even during the epidemic. People are constantly calling; under normal circumstances, she would have multiple Seder invitations. “You talk to your friends, and you’re happy that somebody calls,” Stessel says. “The days go by waiting for better times.”
“We lived through many hard days,” Stessel explains. “This will be one of them, adding to the memories of sad Passovers, to be alone. But thank God on Passover I don’t have to eat bread. I will have everything, I will have potatoes and I will have matzo. I will have the important part—the memories, I will have.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.