Grandchild of Holocaust survivors: 'I can't see grandpa because of corona'

“He lives in an apartment in a nursing home. Before the crisis started, we were visiting him a lot. My mother would go to see him twice a week, my husband and I often did Shabbat with him.”

Holocaust survivor Michael Okunieff visiting his wife's grave in Chicago before making aliyah in November 2019 (photo credit: DAVID PERSIKO)
Holocaust survivor Michael Okunieff visiting his wife's grave in Chicago before making aliyah in November 2019
(photo credit: DAVID PERSIKO)
Ninety-six-year-old Holocaust survivor Michael Okunieff made aliyah from Chicago in November to spend more time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, most of whom live in Israel. Just a few months later, however, the coronavirus emergency forced the country into quarantine, preventing his relatives from visiting him as well as spending time together for his first Passover in Jerusalem, as his grand-daughter Pnima Zaiman told The Jerusalem Post.
Born in 1923 in Vilnius, Lithuania, Okunieff was forced into the ghetto by the Nazis when they invaded the country; he later fought against them with a group of Jewish partisans. He moved to the United States a few years after the war and worked as a family doctor until he retired – at the age of 93.
“He lives in an apartment in a nursing home. Before the crisis started, we were visiting him a lot. My mother would go to see him twice a week; my husband and I often did Shabbat with him,” Zaiman said.
Since the promulgation of the measures that require everyone to be in isolation, especially the elderly population, the family cannot visit Okunieff anymore. However, the facility where he lives offers them the opportunity to see him from behind a glass window, while speaking on the phone at the same time.
This year also marks the first time that the 96 year old is in Israel for Holocaust Memorial Day, or Yom Hashoah as it is known in Hebrew. Sharing his experiences during the war has always been an important part of his relationship with his grandchildren.
“We have always tried to get as many details as possible from him,” Zaiman pointed out.
INBAR ELIAV-PARAN also used to visit her grandparents in Jerusalem often. Her grandfather Moshe Shamir was born in Targu Neamt, Romania, in 1939. Together with a young brother and several other Jewish children, he was sent to a nearby town and hidden in a basement by a Jewish family. A few months later, his mother managed to join them and they survived the war hidden there. Amazingly, his father, who had been arrested and sent to a labor camp, also survived and the family reunited.
“Most of the extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins – did not,” Eliav-Paran told the Post. “It is interesting for us that in spite of the fact that my grandfather was so young at the time of the war, he has very vivid memories of what happened, much more vivid than memories from such a young age usually are.”
Eliav-Paran pointed out that his grandfather has never been very talkative. For Yom Hashoah four years ago, however, she and her mother persuaded him to participate in a zikaron basalon (remembrance in the living room) event they organized.
“At first he was reluctant – but at the event, he spoke for an hour straight and he responded to all the questions. I don’t think we had ever seen him talking as much. After that, speaking about his experience during the war has become much easier,” she explained.
The experience inspired her and her husband to organize a similar event with his grandmother two years later. This year, they were planning to do the same with his grandfather, but the lockdown has prevented it to happen.
“Hopefully we will do it next year,” she concluded.
FOR HADAR RADZINSKI, not seeing his grandfather Baruch – or Bibi, as everyone calls him – has also not been easy.
“We have a very close relationship. I haven’t seen him since the day before Purim” the Tel Aviv resident told the Post. “However, I think that the fear of getting infected is greater than the feeling of loneliness.”
Born in 1928 in Yasi, Romania, Baruch escaped the terrible pogrom that killed thousands of Jews in the city and spent most of the war in Bucharest. He immigrated to Israel a few years later and currently lives in Tel Aviv with a caregiver.
As Radzinski told the Post, for his grandfather, the most traumatizing episode of the war was the sinking of the ship Struma, which was carrying around 800 Jewish refugees from Romania to Mandatory Palestine. Baruch’s brother was among them. Only one of the passengers survived.
“Usually, the Navy organizes a ceremony commemorating the ship on Yom Hazikaron,” Radzinski said, referring to the day commemorating fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, which will on April 27-28 this year. “I think for him, the fact that the ceremony cannot take place is going to be hard.”