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How Helping Holocaust Survivors Enabled Me to Contextualize the Pandemic

One phone call away is the last generation of witnesses to the greatest atrocity in modern Jewish history.
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May 26, 2020
Survivors attend a prayer and tribute ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Jan. 27Photo by Agency Gazeta/Kuba Ociepa/Reuters

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, I was ready. Tucked away in a stylish Pottery Barn Teen trunk was a quarantine-sized stash of hand sanitizers, toothpastes, soaps and shampoos. Odder still, these toiletry treasures dated as far back as childhood. The few who knew of my incessant hoarding, my lifelong preparation for the Worst Case Scenario, thought I was crazy. They were right. And so was I.

My impulse to collect and protect stray supplies like a papa penguin squatting on his eggs was more than a shocking prophecy fulfilled. As a child, I didn’t know why I was pocketing fistfuls of every moisturizer in sight. “Score! Dove anti-aging cream!” All I knew is that I was drawn to lotions, oils and ointments like a neurotic moth to a honey-and-lavender-scented flame. The intuition was animalistic. It was a deep-rooted sense that sometime, somehow, something wicked was to come.

In fact, the intuition was Jewish. I was coping with inherited trauma. Many Jewish families endured some of the world’s worst violence, the ramifications of which remain marked in our genes today. An entire field of research, called epigenetics, is dedicated to understanding the ways in which pain is passed down l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. One study compared the hormone abnormalities of children of Holocaust survivors to that of survivors’, as well as war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Another found that in mice, fear reactions to painful stimuli repeat up to three generations — even when those stimuli no longer exist. On some level, I felt that if only I stored enough magazine perfume samples, I could control a catastrophe of unfathomable proportions.

One phone call away is the last generation of witnesses to the greatest atrocity in modern Jewish history. I am deeply honored to hear directly from survivors about their experience, strength and hope.

Of course, there are as many methods to manage inherited trauma as there are Jews. They are diluted into the phrase “Jewish anxiety.” They are personified by Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David; stereotyped into the Overbearing Jewish Mother. They are the friend who prepares a five-course meal for a casual party, ensuring we are fed for days. They are the stranger at shul who gives unsolicited love and career and political and financial and child-rearing and fashion and you-name-it advice. They are discussions of whether a new Sarah or Daniel is Jewish, too, one of us or a potential threat. They are comments about how “Jewish” one looks. They are the pressure to marry a Jew; attend graduate school; accumulate wealth; be a Nice Jewish Person, the Perfect Jew; follow a seemingly rational algorithm to escape an irrational cycle of anti-Semitism. They are the widespread, woeful and choppy cultural waters in which we swim.

Yet, as our own history attests, these coping responses don’t work. And as COVID-19 confirms, no amount of travel-sized anything can fully protect us from contracting the virus. Not hand sanitizer. Not even soap.

So, how can we stay safe? Sitting atop a growing stockpile of terror and selfishness is counterproductive. As detailed in the Harvard Business Review, panic buying manifests much like the virus itself by exponentially spreading our sense of dread. The No. 1 cure for the quarantine blues? In my experience, supporting Remember Us, an organization dedicated to connecting young Jews with Holocaust memory and survivors. Really.

I began my quarantine with two non-Jews. Less than 48 hours in, they broke. They absolutely had to go to Malibu. Less than a week later, I was calling survivors in quarantine for the second time in their lives. One cheerfully chirped, “Isolation is no big deal. From ’43 to ’45, I never left the closet!” When we parted ways, I held a new sense of perspective, gratitude and willingness to carry on.

Once, I spoke with a woman who cried after we said, “Hello,” thanking me for calling. She was desperate for outreach. Still, we laughed, we talked, we learned about each other. The conversation was joyful, not too intense. She offered to give back as well. (Many are quick to deny our services, insisting we reserve them for someone “needier.”) I was uplifted and proud and soon reading her story about falling in love with her husband. Calling her was like talking to a good friend.

There are an abundance of other opportunities to get out of my ego and into the loving embrace of the community. I cruise through a remarkably traffic- and smog-free Los Angeles to deliver kosher Shabbat baskets, enjoying the vibrant sunset, endless ocean and romantic streets lined with palm trees. I help coordinate an initiative for folks to write songs, poems and letters to one another. When a vulnerable senior is in need of groceries, still venturing out to the stores, I find volunteers to go for them. Seniors continually tell us how overwhelmed they are to find our rich reservoir of collective care. The impact of community service is far greater than the sum of a challah and boureka, letter or bag of produce.

Looking back, I believe my secret need to bury existential dread in that trunk was compulsive because it was decontextualized. Who could I talk to about the half-empty bottles of leaking shaving cream (or in my scavenger eyes, half full)? Now, one phone call away is the last generation of witnesses to the greatest atrocity in modern Jewish history. I am deeply honored to hear directly from survivors about their experience, strength and hope. Their stories are a torch I carry for my children and grandchildren, who won’t have the privilege to learn so intimately and personally, for when they pack their own trunk of worries, neuroses and fears. Although some of our inherited coping mechanisms may be individualized, I am forever grateful to belong to a people with such a beautiful sense of resiliency, togetherness and community. Tikkun olam is an understatement. When we repair someone else’s world, ours grows much, much stronger.

If you would like to participate in Lev Maleh (“Whole Heart”), Remember Us’ new initiative to connect Jewish people with Holocaust survivors and community elders during quarantine, please contact Marissa Cohen at marissa@remember-us.org.


Maya Cohen is a writer in Los Angeles and the project and outreach manager for Remember Us, helping to spearhead the new Lev Maleh initiative.

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