SOPHIE STEKEL – Talking to my grandparents from the bottom of their driveway, it is as if I was on the other side of a barbed-wire fence. I couldn’t get too close. During this COVID-19 outbreak, there are those who have limited freedoms like going to the grocery store or walking around the block, and there are those who are completely entrapped. Unfortunately, being trapped is a feeling my grandparents are all too familiar with.
My grandfather, Morris Rosenberg, is a Holocaust survivor. He fought through years of being confined in a ghetto in Hungary and various concentration camps across Europe. My grandmother, Judy Rosenberg, spent her primary years in hiding during the Hungarian Revolution.
Now that the coronavirus has hit, they are both more vulnerable than ever.
My grandparents are what some call “snowbirds,” seniors who fly south for the winter. They migrated to their home in Toronto from Florida on March 18 before Canada closed its borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
My grandfather, Morris, says he was concerned while travelling. “Social distancing can’t happen on an airplane,” he said.
Now they are stuck at home following the mandatory Quarantine Act introduced by the government, unsure of when they will see their grandchildren next. But Judy still calls this pandemic “a nightmare I can’t wake up from.”
People are comparing this pandemic to the Holocaust, but is it anything like it?
COVID-19 is projected to kill more people than WWI and has already killed more than 9/11.
Both WWII and COVID-19 are beyond common people’s control and are phenomenons that spread quickly. In both cases, something people did not believe would happen became a reality. Society has gone into survival mode where people are fighting to the death for a pack of toilet paper.
“Back then, people were dying and people were sick. But this is not just in Germany or concentration camps across Europe. This is a global disaster,” says Morris. “I think back to 75 years ago to how much worse it was than today.”
Ruth Reiner is a clinical psychologist based in Toronto who looks at the subconscious of how previous experiences impact her clients. As a child of two Holocaust survivors and an immigrant from Germany, Reiner has a personal connection that allows her to empathize with her senior clients.
Reiner says the pandemic could affect seniors more if they have been through past traumas. She says many seniors have felt out of control in the past because they have lived more life and suffered more hardships.
Both of my grandparents have ample amounts of mental resilience. “You can’t give up or people are going to have a lot of problems mentally. The mental attitude to believe and fight back is very important,” says Morris.
Morris says all he has to do is think back to times where it was even worse many years ago.
Reiner says thoughts of WWII and COVID-19 are both likely to give rise to a sense of helplessness, isolation and abandonment amongst the senior community. The forced separation creates a “collective but unifying fear” of the unknown, she says.
“It can definitely lead to depression,” says Reiner. “No question. The absence of contact and connection is going to wear down your serotonin.”
My grandparents told me that one of their friends, who is also a Holocaust survivor, has been struggling with depression since the pandemic broke out.
Reiner says “connection is critical” during this time. If a day or two goes by without hearing from their friend, my grandparents call to check-in.
“You know, I’m 91 years old,” says Morris. “I have a friend who is 92 and I have a friend who is 97 and I have a friend who is 93 and I keep talking to these people and I have to encourage them to ‘keep your chin up.’ We’re trying to support each other as much as possible, even through the telephone. And that’s all we can do.”
“Sharing this helps,” says Reiner. “We’re not carrying it alone. We’re all in this together and there’s a tremendous sense of community in that.”
The coronavirus is not being targeted toward particular group. It’s not motivated by anger, exclusion or aggression. It’s not pinning people against each other as much as it is bringing people together.
“It’s important to cope by looking at the positives,” says Reiner. People are helping each other. They are volunteering and donating supplies. They are singing ‘Oh, Canada’ from their balconies to remind us of how lucky we are that we are free.
“Back then, we were surrounded by barbed wires and locked in. We couldn’t go out, we didn’t have food to eat. Now, we’re locked in because of our own will and we have food and all of the necessities. We just have to say positive and wait until it’s going to end,” says Morris.
Although they say it’s not easy, both of my grandparents are doing well in quarantine. They are continuing a daily routine of getting fresh air, playing Rummikub and catching up on TV. My grandmother is even brushing up on her Spanish thanks to the Rosetta Stone free trial.
“It helps because we went through a lot and we know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.
My grandfather’s dream is to one day wake up and turn on the TV to hear someone has found a cure for COVID-19.
“I think what’s going to happen is that that everyone believes that there’s some relief in sight and the first thing we’re all going to want to do is hug each other,” says Reiner.
Until then, my grandparents are safe in quarantine at home where I will continue to visit them from the end of their driveway or talk to them from the other side of a sheet of glass.
We live in an unprecedented situation that has never happened in our lifetime. But as my grandfather says, “You cannot lose hope. You have to have faith. That’s the most important thing.”
This article was originally published on April 7, 2020 in Telling the Story using Integrated Media.