In the summer of 1943, thousands of Jews from the town of Brzezany in Nazi-occupied Galicia (now in western Ukraine) were herded to a nearby cemetery and shot dead. Among the few survivors was 8-year-old Shimon Redlich. He spent the next six months hidden with his mother and grandparents in an attic in the empty Jewish ghetto. When their living conditions became unbearable, they moved to another hideout at a nearby village in the home of a Ukrainian woman, where they spend the next six months.
For someone who loves being out and about, Redlich, a professor emeritus of Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, finds it difficult being cooped up at home these days because of the coronavirus lockdown.
“It throws me back into my childhood in hiding,” he says in a Skype conversation from his home in the central Israeli city of Modi’in.
Redlich, now 85, attributes this sense of déjà vu to the unpredictability of his situation. “Back then, we didn’t know whether the Germans would discover our hiding place, and that would spell the end for us,” he says. “Now, I can’t say whether I’ll get sick, in which case, given my age category, that might be the end of me too.”
The absence of a daily routine, he says, is also reminiscent of those days.
“In normal times, the day is broken up into clear segments,” he explains. “That doesn’t happen now. It’s as if time becomes fluid – and that was very much my feeling then, too.”
Then, as now, he was constantly surrounded by the same faces. And then, as now, any foray into the world beyond his confined quarters required planning and preparation. “Today, that means putting on a mask and gloves,” Redlich notes.
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His train of thought is momentarily disrupted by a knock at the door. It is his wife, requesting help bringing in the groceries that have just been delivered to their doorstep. Redlich is instantly reminded of another similarity.
“Of course we have all the food we need right now, but there is still this obsession with it,” he says. “You’re constantly worrying about whether you’ll have enough to last until the next delivery. And what I remember from our days in hiding was this constant preoccupation with the food and whether it would last us.”
Many struggling with the stay-at-home rules mandated by the pandemic are turning for inspiration these days to Anne Frank – the Holocaust diarist who spent more than two years in a hideout in Amsterdam before being discovered and sent to various concentration camps, eventually dying in Bergen-Belsen in early 1945.
As someone who lived under similar conditions, Redlich understands why her story resonates so much these days.
“Such comparisons are not relevant when it comes to the more extreme situations, like the death camps,” he says. “But for those of us who were in hiding, there are definitely parallels to be drawn.”
Dolly Chinitz, another hidden child, is not so sure. “You can’t compare,” says the 90-year-old in a phone conversation from her retirement home in Jerusalem. “We were like hunted prey, we were being targeted for death, and we had to lay low if we wanted to survive. It’s just not the same thing. This is a sickness. You either get it or you don’t, you either get well or you don’t – but everybody is in the same boat.”
Finding a viable hideout was often the only way for Jewish children to survive the Holocaust. Some were lucky enough to find Christian families who took them in. Others escaped death by hiding in underground bunkers or caves. Sometimes they hid with other family members, but not always.
Chinitz and her twin sister Mari were 14 when the Nazis invaded their hometown of Budapest. Their mother, who had been arrested, sent the two girls into hiding with a Christian woman and her son. They spent six weeks in this home, during which time the two girls suffered physical abuse. Because they could not leave the house, Chinitz recounts, they had no way to protect themselves during air raids. “It was such a terrible time,” she says. “How can I compare that to today where I have a beautiful large apartment, a balcony and all the food I need?”
Naomi Waldman, 90, hid for two years in an abandoned house in Antwerp, along with her parents. She has vivid memories of the day Nazi troops broke into the building while she and her parents, having been forewarned, hid in the attic. “My aunt came in and let us know that the Nazis were gone, but we thought it was a trick and refused to come down from the attic,” she recalls, in a phone conversation from her Jerusalem home.
Six months later, the Nazis returned, but this time Waldman and her parents were caught unawares. They were loaded onto a truck and taken to a transit camp, where they were separated. But miraculously, she relays, they all survived, including her five older siblings.
“I’ve been asked whether there is anything similar between my experience today and my experiences then. For me, the only similarity is the hoarding of food,” she says.
“We’re all sitting in our beautiful apartments with all the conveniences,” she adds. “Nobody is chasing us. Nobody is tormenting us. So even if these are very difficult times – especially if you’re all alone, as I am – there’s really no comparison.”
Sharon Kangisser Cohen, the editor of Yad Vashem Studies, a scholarly journal published by Israel’s national Holocaust commemoration institute, recently co-edited a large study of child survivors.
“I would say that, on a theoretical level, we know that certain situations trigger memories of the past, and one would think intuitively that isolation would trigger some of these wartime memories,” she says, noting that many Israeli Holocaust survivors were traumatized during the first Gulf War when they were ordered to wear gas masks to protect themselves from the possibility of chemical warfare.
But based on recent conversations with a group of Holocaust survivors, she continues, the coronavirus crisis does not seem to be awakening the same old fears and anxieties. “I did speak to one woman, who tends to be very emotional and was very upset that she had to spend the [Passover] seder alone this year for the first time since the war. But most of the others I spoke with did not seem to think this was a comparable situation. Perhaps the only thing that resonated for them was not knowing when it would end.”
Most of the concerns they raised, Kangisser Cohen notes, had little to do with their own personal situation. “They were more worried about the political crisis in the country and about how their children were going to manage financially,” she relays. “My impression was that there’s no real sense of immediate danger because of the coronavirus.”
‘Anxious and frightened’
Andy Griffel was whisked out of the Jewish ghetto in Radom in October 1942, right after his mother gave birth to him. He spent the first three years of his life hidden by a Christian family in the Polish town. He remembers little, if anything, about his experiences in hiding. “From everything I was told, those were actually very good years,” says the 77-year-old lawyer, who splits his life between the United States and Israel.
But Griffel considers himself unique among Holocaust survivors in Israel – even among the hidden children, who tend to be younger. “I’m not in an old age home and not really living alone,” he says. “I go out with my dog four to five times a day, and because he’s friendly I get to interact with lots of kids – of course, with the 2-meter distance rule. The experience of hiding seems to affect different people differently, so I wouldn’t want to make any generalizations.”
Neither does Shoshana Sprecher, 79, remember much about the three-month period she spent hiding under the roof of a coffee shop with her mother in a small town in southwestern France. She believes the experience has scarred her nonetheless.
“What happens to you in your childhood, you take it with you all your life, and I guess that’s why being inside and alone today makes me feel anxious and frightened,” she says. Although she understands that these are different times, Sprecher says that seeing the police out in large numbers on the streets to enforce the lockdown makes her nervous. “I know they are good people, but this is something that goes back to my childhood and it is difficult for me,” she says.
Although Chinitz, the survivor from Hungary, rejects comparisons between now and then, that doesn’t make being alone any easier. “I’m a people person,” she says. “I like to have people around me – I touch people, I kiss people – and so I’m climbing the walls.”
Her longtime partner lives in the same retirement facility, but they haven’t been allowed to see one other. “I’ve never felt this alone in my life,” she says. “Even in my mother’s womb I had my sister, so I’m taking this very badly. I believe that many of us will pay a big emotional price for all this isolation.”