From Antisemitism to Zoom Prayers, How COVID-19 Affected Europe’s Jewish Communities

Over the past year, the Jewish communities of Germany, Britain, Hungary and Italy all experienced different coronavirus challenges – but there were some familiar old problems too

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Caskets labeled with the word 'Covid' are stacked with others coffins in a memorial hall in Meissen, Germany, two months ago.
Caskets labeled with the word 'Covid' are stacked with others coffins in a memorial hall in Meissen, Germany, two months ago.Credit: Markus Schreiber/AP

When Germany’s main Jewish organization sought to help the community when the coronavirus crisis hit last year, it faced two unique problems: The Jewish community is scattered across more than 100 locations nationwide; and many local Jews struggle to understand German having emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.

The Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany, founded in 1917, was well placed to meet those challenges, though, and to assist the country’s estimated 116,000 Jews, as the board’s main task in recent decades has been to aid the Russian Jews who headed west.

“One of the first things our organization did was to translate all the COVID-19-related information to Russian,” the organization’s head of communications, Laura Cazés, tells Haaretz. And it wasn’t just facts the board disseminated. “We have a very hands-on approach, which means we’re physically present in the Jewish communities across Germany, delivering more than 2 million masks and offering support for mental health issues as well,” she adds. 

At the start of the pandemic last March, Germany imposed a nationwide lockdown in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. But while that was initially successful, the infection rates rose dramatically last fall, causing the government to impose another lockdown. The number of infections peaked at 45,000 new cases daily in early January, but that is now down to 5,000 per day. 

A German doctor offering COVID tests at a traditional small kiosk in Frankfurt last year.Credit: Michael Probst/AP

Like elsewhere, the uncertainty and unrest had an impact on public mental health. However, Cazés says, an interesting phenomenon emerged in Germany’s Jewish community. 

“Early on, we launched a hotline in German, English, Hebrew and Russian. Initially, we found that older people were scared about the uncertainty of the situation. That’s changed and now we see this feeling of uncertainty among young people,” Cazés relays. Interestingly, she says, “Holocaust survivors seem to have been more resilient. They feel like they’ve been through much worse, so their main concerns are more practical: who are the doctors taking care of them, and why are there so many police on the street?” 

She also reports another phenomenon: “We’ve detected a tendency where those in the community who rely on Russian media have been more skeptical toward vaccination,” she says. “We therefore launched a campaign in German and Russian to recommend that people get vaccinated.”

One of the main concerns for Germany’s Jewish community in recent years has been the rise in antisemitic incidents, and that’s manifested itself during the pandemic with conspiracy theories holding Jews responsible for COVID-19

Laura Cazés. “One of the first things our organization did was to translate all the COVID-19-related information to Russian.”Credit: Robert Poticha

“Many in the community are very alert when it comes to these antisemitic conspiracy theories that target us. And they’re often linked to Holocaust distortion and antisemitic imagery, such as the yellow star and Anne Frank,” Cazés says, referring to German anti-lockdown activists who wore yellow Stars of David and compared themselves to the teenage Dutch diarist. 

Britain: Staying strong

Though no figures have been released to suggest whether Germany’s Jewish community has been more adversely affected than the rest of Germany, it’s a different story in Britain.

People wearing face masks walking past a billboard in London with a recent work by artist Mark Titchner last year. Credit: Matt Dunham / AP

“We were hit very hard in the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, Jews were twice as likely to die than Christians and secular people in the United Kingdom. But, it at least appears that the community isn’t being hit disproportionately in the post-summer wave,” says Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

As of February 26, 878 British Jews have died out of a community numbering 290,000. Van der Zyl explains that the high mortality rate initially was partly due to Purim celebrations, with the Jewish festival acting as a super-spreader event. 

But did the pandemic strengthen or weaken Britain’s Jewish community? According to van der Zyl, the former. “The Jewish community has really pulled together,” she says. “Right from the beginning, we’ve seen a fantastic spirit of volunteering, with people looking after each other. We’ve also worked together with lawmakers in the opposition and in the government, and the Muslim community, to stop legislation from moving forward that would have seen cremation of bodies without consulting families first; to make sure faith burials were respected,” van der Zyl adds. 

Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.Credit: Courtesy

While Britain reached a new milestone this week, with 20 million people receiving their first vaccine shot, infections have soared in the past couple of months. At their worst, in early January, there were 68,000 new daily cases. 

Like in Germany, the coronavirus made an old problem even worse for Britain’s Jewish community.

There’s been an increase in online antisemitism, with conspiracy theories saying Jews are responsible for COVID-19 and the Black Death,” van der Zyl says.

Jewish children dressed as police officers celebrating Purim last month in Stamford Hill, London.Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS

Hungary: Turning to religion

The pandemic hit Hungary’s Jewish community hard, according to Rabbi Slomó Köves, chief rabbi of the Association of Jewish Communities of Hungary. 

“I wouldn’t say it has experienced more infections or deaths as compared to the rest of the country. However, the pandemic has drastically changed Jewish communal life in every sense,” Köves says. Hungary’s 47,000-strong Jewish community, based mainly in Budapest, is split between Chabad-affiliated and Reform streams, but while the Reform synagogues have been closed for about a year, the “Chabad synagogues are currently open, with a restriction on the number of people allowed in at any given time. Many activities are now online, such as holiday services, religious lessons and so on,” he adds. 

Hungary was one of the few countries in Europe that managed to keep infection rates very low in the first six months, imposing a strict nationwide lockdown. But the numbers took a turn for the worse in September, peaking in November with nearly 7,000 new daily cases. This led to another lockdown, which is still ongoing. 

A Holocaust survivor preparing to receive a dose of the COIVD-19 vaccine at Bratislava's Jewish community center in Slovakia recently.Credit: RADOVAN STOKLASA/REUTERS

The hardships the Jewish community endured during the pandemic affected the community in two interesting ways, according to Köves. 

“I have definitely noticed an increase in the number of people turning to religion,” he says. “This is a time when many people are looking for spiritual value in their lives, especially at a time when they feel insecure. People are looking for – and need – hope. We have seen a growing interest from Hungarian Jews within the past year. For example, applications to our community school have doubled this year,” he reports.  

“I also think we’ve demonstrated that in difficult times we’re able to unite and support each other. We have a great deal of mutual support within the Jewish community. For example, before every holiday, poor families, Holocaust survivors and the elderly receive food packages,” the rabbi adds.  

Italy: Religion survives everything

In Italy, the relatively small Jewish community, estimated at some 27,000 and centered around Rome and Milan, also came together in a time of need.

David Zebuloni is the editor-in-chief of HaTikwa, a newspaper aimed at Italy’s young Jews. “In the first lockdown, young people in the Jewish community helped bring food to the elderly,” he recounts. “The community has always been very strong, and traditional. And what we’ve seen throughout the pandemic is that religion can survive anything. If synagogues close, the rabbis just talk to the community on Zoom,” he says. 

Italy was the first European COVID-19 epicenter, with horror stories emerging of overcrowded hospitals and mass burials in northern Italy. While other European countries such as Britain, Spain and France have since overtaken it in the number of fatalities, Italy is still approaching the unwelcome milestone of 100,000 COVID deaths. 

Authorities unveiling a memorial for COVID deaths, in Codogno, northern Italy, last month. Credit: Luca Bruno/AP

Early on in the crisis, the Jewish community had its own way of mourning those deaths: “The local Jewish newspaper would publish an article about each victim, telling their life story as a way to honor them. But that was in the beginning,” Zebuloni says, adding that ultimately there were just too many deaths to maintain the practice.

Like Germany and Britain, Italy has also seen pandemic-driven antisemitism, which worries Zebuloni. “We’ve seen conspiracy theories accusing Jews of COVID, as well as people wearing face masks with the yellow Star of David, comparing lockdowns to the Holocaust,” he says.

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