Holocaust survivors show resilient edge dealing with pandemic

Holocaust survivor George Sternfeld gets flashbacks of wartime Europe but quickly adapted to pandemic restrictions.

Holocaust survivor George Sternfeld gets flashbacks of wartime Europe but quickly adapted to pandemic restrictions.

Arranging a Zoom interview with Sydney’s Holocaust survivors isn’t easy these days. Not due to technical difficulties or self-isolation anxiety, it’s more a question of time. They are just too busy.

While some psychologists expressed fears self-isolation during the coronavirus crisis and lockdown could trigger dark memories in survivors of when they were in hiding from the Nazis’ genocide, their ability to adapt to adversity has been stronger.

Eddie Jaku is in the middle of an online marathon for his book promotion tour. The 100-year-old just finished writing his life story, which is in bookstores at the end of the month.

From surviving one of the most brutal concentration camps in WWII to thriving as a businessman in Sydney, after arriving in Australia with nothing, now Eddie can call himself an author too.

“When I look out of the window, I don’t see smoke, I don’t see people hanging. I’m sitting on a comfortable chair, in a nice room, getting three meals a day. There is no reason not to be happy,” he says over the phone from his home at Woolahra, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

He adds that “different to the war, this current pandemic was caused naturally; it is something we fight together.”

Whatever life threw at him, Eddie explains, out of his early traumatic experiences grew an unbreakable yearning to not let himself be a victim.

Does another possible virus outbreak worry him though? Yes, it is an anxiety-triggering thought, and the 100-year-old misses his friends and family, whom he has been separated from for months.

But even when his plans to have a party for his 100th  birthday were wiped out, he did not utter a word of complaint.

“Happiness is something we can choose,” he says. “It is up to you.”

The COVID-19 cases in Australia are peaking again. Half-a-year into the pandemic mental health experts all over the globe worry that many have reached the point of becoming emotionally overwhelmed. Research warns specifically of the phenomenon of Zoom fatigue, and that a video call is not a replacement for human to human contact.

Almost the opposite seems to be the case for Sydney’s Holocaust survivors.

The Jewish Museum in Darlinghurst recently reopened its doors after the coronavirus outbreak forced its closure along with many of the city’s institutions. But, it has some crucial restrictions and new arrangements in place to protect its precious raft of survivors.

Normally, the 40 survivors visited the museum once a week. In personal lectures, they would tell their life stories to high school students.

Sharing that personal side of history is precious, says Sandy Hollis, an educator at the Jewish Museum – specifically in a city with no other public memorials to the horror of the Holocaust.

“We have to try and learn from their history, if we don’t, we will see this playing out over and over again,” she says.

These days it is too much of a risk for the survivors to come into the museum, let alone speak to a large group of people in the same room.

Instead, supported by the museum’s staff, the survivors quickly got on top of technology.

Their stories are now recorded on video and have been shared on social media. Rather than holding face-to-face-lectures they are online in live sessions. Via Zoom, Holocaust survivors are streamed into high school classrooms.

“Well, we understand it’s too much of a risk to have personal lectures right now. Us Holocaust survivors are an endangered species, you know,” Egon Sonnenschein laughs over a late afternoon Zoom call. The 90-year-old survived the Second World War but vividly recalls witnessing the aftermath of massacres as a young Jew in Croatia.

Egon Sonnenschein, 90, speaking over Zoom.

Sonnenschein translated means sunshine in German. It’s quite an apt last name for his character.

“Life will always ask you to adjust and adapt,” he says. “You can’t stop that. Of course, the virus makes me feel vulnerable and uneasy – but, for me personally, isolation felt like a holiday.

“Yes, we were alone for several months. But my wife and I started ordering our groceries online. Plus, there are some great movies on Netflix.”

Yet, some survivors have struggled more than others.

“For some it’s been very difficult,” explains Ms Hollis. “Being trapped at home triggered many traumatic memories. It reminded them of their childhood, when it was too dangerous to leave the house.”

That’s why the museum’s staff stays in constant touch with the survivors. Every day they ring them, just to check in, she says.

Lately, George Sternfeld admits, he has had a few sleepless nights. As upbeat and full of optimism as the 81-year-old Polish-born Holocaust survivor appears, isolation has brought back some painful memories.

“Yes, isolation occasionally reminds me of the war. Though, I was only a child – I didn’t know any different. In retrospect, I can identify how it affected me mentally,” he says.

“Often I wake up at night because I had a dream from the past.”

To stay sane, he tells me when we meet in a cafe near his home in Randwick, Sydney, he has been focusing on his passion for painting. He frequently shares his new paintings with his Facebook friends. And WhatsApp has been a great way to stay in touch with his family, he adds.

It might have been 70 years since Eddie settled in Sydney, but still, his mind never rests. He’s not slowing up. His memoir, titled The Happiest Man on Earth, is not the culmination of his life, just a new milestone.

As we end our interview, he says: “I don’t mind talking over Zoom. I never want to stop learning.

“And I want to keep sharing my life lessons as long as I can.”