Coronavirus: For Holocaust survivors a different Yom Hashoah

Lighting the torch to honor my father and all those who did not survive would have meant a lot to me, I’m glad I was still able to be part of the virtual ceremony, but it was not the same."

Adopt-a-Safta Yom Hashoah ceremony 2019 (photo credit: ADOPT-A-SAFTA)
Adopt-a-Safta Yom Hashoah ceremony 2019
(photo credit: ADOPT-A-SAFTA)
For Lea Reuveni, 94, this Holocaust Remembrance Day was supposed to be a very special one. She was among the survivors invited by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to light one of the six torches commemorating the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
Because of the coronavirus restrictions, the Givatayim resident was still part of the solemn ceremony, but she was unable to attend in person and light the torch.
“Lighting the torch to honor my father and all those who did not survive would have meant a lot to me,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “I’m glad I was still able to be part of the virtual ceremony, but it was not the same.”
Reuveni was born in Iršava, Czechoslovakia, in 1926, the eldest of nine children. Her family moved to Belgium when she was three. During the war, the family fled to different cities in France and then Italy. They risked being arrested by the Nazis on several occasions and often managed to escape thanks to Reuveni’s courage and creativity.
In 1943, the family found shelter in a monastery in Florence, which in November was raided by the Nazis. One more time, the young woman managed to persuade them that she, her mother and several other Jewish women were paperless Hungarian refugees, and they escaped capture.
She later convinced her mother to reach Rome with the rest of the children. Lea remained behind. Her father had been arrested but had not yet been sent north.
 “We were very close,” she said. “Before he was deported, he managed to write a letter, thanking me for everything I had done and asking me to take care of my mother and siblings.”
After the war, Reuveni’s family immigrated to Israel. She remained behind to complete nursing school and joined them in 1960, working first in Jerusalem and then in Haifa, where she got married. She and her husband did not have children. After he died, she moved to an assisted-living facility in Givatayim, where three of her siblings and their descendants reside.
Before the coronavirus crisis, they were visiting her regularly, and she also attended several activities, including English and gym classes.
“When I first moved here, I also volunteered as a nurse for residents who needed more assistance,” she told the Post. “I have always liked to keep busy. Now it is harder.”
Reuveni said always being alone is not easy, but she likes reading and speaks with her relatives on the phone.
“My participation in the Yad Vashem ceremony meant a lot to all of them,” she said.
This Holocaust Remembrance Day has been very significant for David Cassuto and his wife, Noemi.
Cassuto is an architect, one of the founders of Ariel University and a former deputy-mayor of Jerusalem. His six children and their children recently have taken a deeper interest in the family history, he told the Post.
Last year, the family went on a trip to retrace the steps of Noemi’s father during the war. This year, just before the coronavirus outbreak made international traveling increasingly difficult, he went back to Italy with one of his sons to film a documentary on his family history for Channel 13.
Cassuto was born in Florence in 1937, the son of the city’s chief rabbi, Nathan Cassuto. The rabbi was instrumental in creating a network to help persecuted Jews go into hiding, before he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz together with his wife, Anna. She survived the war and later immigrated to Israel with David and her other children. In April 1948, she was killed in the Arab attack against a Jewish convoy on the way to Mount Scopus, where she worked.
The screening of the documentary scheduled for Holocaust Remembrance Day was very meaningful, Cassuto said.
He and his wife are doing well in isolation, he said, adding: “I’m very busy teaching. My wife, who is an artist, is working on her artwork for a new exhibition. We get groceries and medicines delivered when we need them, and one of our children brings us anything else we happen to need, just leaving it by the door.”
Cassuto said they miss seeing their grandchildren, but they often talk to them on the phone or in a video call.
“For Passover, we had a big family reunion online right before the holiday started with all our children and their families, including the one who lives in America,” he said. “Then for the first time in our life, my wife and I had Seder by ourselves. Usually it is a 30-people event. We found out that being only two and with no children around, we could have very deep discussions about the Haggadah.”
Some 190,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel. For many of them, loneliness was one of the major challenges even before the coronavirus crisis started, said Jay M. Shultz, founder of the nonprofit Adopt-A-Safta.
He is a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. After he made aliyah several years ago, Shultz connected with a second cousin of his grandfather, and the relationship became very meaningful, he told the Post.
“I might have given a lot to her, but she gave way more to me,” he said.
A few years later, Shultz established the organization with the idea of giving both the young and the elderly an opportunity to find a family-type relationship with deep mutual benefits and meaning, with a special focus on Holocaust survivors, who represent about 80% of the thousands of people assisted.
“Even if Holocaust education is not our focus, since we realized that there were no major [Holocaust Remembrance Day] events in English, every year we organized one in Tel Aviv, which is attended by hundreds of people. This year, it was switched online,” he said.
“I think that for many of the elderly we assist, the situation has not changed so much,” Shultz said. “Being home by themselves was normal before this happened. However, I think that the lockdown is making us and many young people appreciate what they go through.”