Ever since the survivors began to emerge from the inferno of the Holocaust, their mantra to their more fortunate fellow Jews was that no words could adequately describe what they had experienced. “You do not understand, you cannot understand,” my teacher and mentor Elie Wiesel once wrote. “You who were not there will never understand.”
This year, perhaps for the first time, we have been given an instinctive, almost subconscious insight into what it must have been like. Not the horrors, of course, nor the abject suffering. We have not been beset with gas chambers. We are not being starved, or deported, or tortured, or systematically, brutally murdered. Certainly we are not being targeted or persecuted because we are Jews.
But we all intuitively sense a similar dread. The Covid-19 pandemic has isolated us, even if it is in the comfort of our homes rather than in a squalid ghetto or a death camp barrack. We are at the mercy of an inexorable force that seeks to devastate us, albeit not as Jews but as part of humankind as a whole.
We are distressed about family members and friends. We are acutely aware that too many in our extended communities have been infected by the coronavirus and are forced to suffer alone in hospital beds without any close family members able to hold their hands or speak words of comfort to them. We hear over and over again that someone we knew has succumbed to the disease.
All of us in all parts of the world are being terrorized day and night, week in, week out, by an invisible, to date largely invincible enemy that can strike anyone anywhere at any time. All precautions seem inadequate in the face of the ever-climbing number of hospitalizations and corresponding fatalities. The happenstance that the first Israeli victim of the coronavirus was a Holocaust survivor provided an additional grim layer of symbolism.
Why else is this year different from all previous years? For the first time since the first Passover meal was shared millennia ago by the Israelites while still in Egypt, virtually no Jewish families anywhere in the world celebrated a seder in physical togetherness. Grandparents could not be with their children and grandchildren. Siblings could not embrace each other. The best we could do to maintain a semblance of connectedness was to see and hear one another via Zoom or FaceTime.
Even at the height of the Holocaust, with the gas chambers of Birkenau, Treblinka and Majdanek operating at full force, Jews in New York, London, Tel Aviv, Melbourne, and elsewhere ate, drank and laughed together at their seders, and then prayed together in their synagogues the following day. As Wiesel noted, they simply could not comprehend what Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and North Africa were going through. And because they could not understand, most probably did not even try to understand. They effectively existed on a different planet than those Jews whose entire universe was being shattered.
This is not an abstraction. On the evening of April 19, 1943, while Jews in the free world sang “Next year in Jerusalem,” the seders in the Warsaw Ghetto were held against a backdrop of explosions and the rattling of machine guns. My parents gathered around the table with their families in their respective ghettos, knowing that it well could be – and indeed turned out to be – the last holiday that they would spend together.
This year is indeed different. This year, we all have had to come to grips with the same ominous uncertainty, and we all have had to disrupt our religious and other practices and rituals. Not just Jews. As World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder emphasized in a video message to Jewish communities across the globe, Christians unable to celebrate Easter and Muslims unable to observe Ramadan are in exactly the same boat, and must confront precisely the same unknown.
I am not making any analogies between then and now, nor do I mean to overstate our present-day predicament. My mother-in-law, Lilly Bloch, survived the Holocaust by hiding for more than two-and-a-half years with her parents and aunt in a cramped, dark, unheated grain cellar on a Polish farm. Today’s form of “sheltering in place,” she explained in a recent interview with The Jewish Week, cannot be compared “in any way to what we lived through. Nobody is looking for me, to kill me,” adding poignantly, seemingly as an afterthought, “Now I have food and I have light.”
Still, as we approach Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 21, perhaps we will do so this year with at least a measure of humility and introspection. Perhaps, as we participate in virtual, remote commemorations, our own lessened sense of security will open a window for us into the precarious loneliness, the feeling of impending doom, the absolute fear, that enveloped Jews in the ghettos and camps, in hiding, in the forests, or on the run. Perhaps, for the first time, we who were not there will begin to understand.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.