What does the COVID-19 crisis have to teach us?
The scope of this question, raised by the intrusion of the virus into our daily lives, is too broad for intelligent reply. It is answerable only by windy platitudes about the vulnerability of mankind, the vanity of material progress, and the folly of our previous, seemingly blameless, ways of life. They leave us feeling mildly guilty, as the deliverers of such platitudes intend us to feel.
But something has been left out: our everyday human experience of coping. This is a lesson in itself.
And what if these lessons in coping are delivered by academics and teachers, who suddenly find themselves being taught?
“Creating Under Covid,” is a collection of stories told by scores of Holocaust researchers, members of fora connected with the The Arnold and Leona Finkler Institute of Holocaust Research, at the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Bar-Ilan University. They tell of living under lockdown in Israel, Europe, and North America, as the first wave of infection broke over their heads.
The impetus for the collection came from the institute’s director, Prof. Judy Baumel-Schwartz. “This book intends to depict a “slice of life”, that was experienced by our forum members during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she writes.
The researchers, ranging from graduate students through to emeritus professors, are naturally influenced by their ages. The elderly lock themselves down and see their grandchildren on screens. The younger are more willing to get out and about, while observing the local regulations. Just like ourselves.
However lockdowns do not put a stop to their work. Here and there a grant is canceled, conferences are postponed. But Zoom comes to the rescue of teaching, and several contributors report making welcome progress on books and articles from their unexpected confinement. Professionally, they are prospering from what one scholar described as “the unexpected gift of time.” Emotionally, though, reactions are mixed, and the common topic of their researches is never far from the surface.
All agree: You cannot compare the virus to the Holocaust. “[M]y being locked up with my family in total isolation for months on end does not further anybody’s understanding of what the Franks, the van Pels, Dr. Pfeffer and countless others went through,” is a typical comment. As is this: “Recalling my parents’ resilience after living through all of that makes this seem like nothing to handle.” But as Prof. Bozwena Karwowska notes, “researching the Holocaust is unlike other fields – there is a heavy psychological price attached to it.” For many, COVID adds to this price.
The few remaining survivors are very elderly, and therefore in the highest of risk groups for dying in the pandemic. Each death means more witnesses falling silent, another link to the past snapped. Since what they had to say was not just a message of horror, but also of hope and ultimate survival, their silence is poignant.
And for the writers, their own links with the survivors are personal, frequently familial. The prospect of loss can be as hard as loss itself, as Prof. Susan Jacobowitz reflects.
“My father is 91 and lives in Arizona. We don’t know when we will be able to see each other again. The inability to protect him haunts me. My children didn’t deserve this, and my father and his generation don’t deserve this. My father didn’t want to tell me about the Holocaust. Only when I was an adult did my father agree to share his story with me. My strangest insight was when I woke up one morning, anxious because of the uncertainty of the future, to this thought: This is what your father was trying to spare you.” When survivors themselves put in an appearance, however, they are mostly in resilient, if not combative, mood. Anita Winter reports that “most of the survivors express their feelings and say: ‘We had much more difficult times; we had no home, no food, no warm clothing.’” Many of the writers illustrate, often unconsciously, the assumption that those blessed with rich emotional and intellectual resources are better placed to cope with times of uncertainty and isolation. However, this does not lessen the strain for some.
“We have no compass and we live on the edge of a map, where the medieval cartographers wrote ‘Here the monsters dwell,’” writes Prof. Eli Tzur. And Martin Herskovitz glumly admits, “COVID has returned me to a world long ago, a world of uncertainty, loneliness and rejection.” Behind this uncertainty lurks the thought, for some, that the post-pandemic world may no longer be interested in the Shoah, the life’s work of these contributors. Prof. Victoria Aarons expands on this fear: “Our profession is paradoxical: it is public; we stand in front of a classroom day after day; we interact with colleagues; we make formal presentations at conferences; we publish work that is open to scrutiny by reviewers and scholars in our field. But it is also isolating, solitary: we read and think and write in seclusion, and at times I wonder if anybody out there will read what I write, if anyone cares about the subjects that we spend our lives thinking about. The pandemic has glaringly exacerbated this pronounced sense of isolation.” Some concerns expressed are more pedagogical than existential, as in this comment from Dr. Mordechai Paldiel, who laments the inability of distance learning to grip the emotions, a vital part of Holocaust education: “This vital information is better suited to pass in a classroom setting where teachers and students interact in a way that makes possible a long-lasting impact on the students. Teaching the Holocaust via Zoom defeats this purpose, due to the severe lack of teacher-students interaction.” Grumbling about governments is a popular theme: academics enjoy it no less than the rest of us. Ironically, one government which gets good marks here is Germany. Its social response (“inter-neighborly assistance, social discipline, as well as assistance for individuals and groups at risk”) is also highly rated.
For the most part, though, there is no agreement among these historians on what the virus has to teach us. As one puts it, “No doubt this small devious virus entered our lives to move us, make us think about our future, about our present, and forced us to ask: what do we really want?” But their answers, like ours, differ, and the different ways in which we answer are themselves an answer of sorts.
Baumel-Schwartz has assembled a fascinating, and at times moving, collection. These brief essays, informed as most of them are by close professional and emotional involvement with the Holocaust, give added meaning and perspective to our present troubles. They illustrate something once said by the dedicatee of this volume, the late pioneering American sociologist (and COVID-19 victim) Prof. William B. Helmreich: “Just about everyone’s got an interesting story to tell; you just need to get them to tell it.” And if there is a moral to be found, let this one from Pauline Levis serve. “Hopefully, the world will become a kinder, more equal place with people appreciating the really important things in life. Stay safe, everyone.” Creating Under Covid
Judy Baumel-Schwartz (ed.)
The Arnold and Leona Finkler Institute of Holocaust Research Faculty of Jewish Studies, Bar-Ilan University
184 pages; No price stated