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Holocaust survivors are now receiving their first doses of the vaccine — and fame

Elderly Holocaust survivors are among the most susceptible to the current pandemic; 900 died of Covid in Israel alone. That is why it was heartening to see, on Twitter, one 97-year-old Holocaust survivor grinning because she had just beaten Covid, and another smiling after receiving her first dose of the vaccine.

Dov Forman, Lily Ebert’s 17-year-old great grandson, posted on Twitter about the 97-year-old’s first stroll outside since she fell ill. Ebert was 21 when she was taken to Auschwitz; she labored in the camp for four months. She now lives in London and had already received the first dose of her coronavirus vaccine when she caught the virus before she was able to get the second dose required for the vaccine to be fully effective.

“It is fantastic when you can say for everything, ‘I managed, I am here. I went through it, and I am here,’” Ebert told NBC. “I think the only thing that you can do is never, ever give up because there is always hope.”

Johanna Winant, a professor of English at West Virginia University, went viral for a tweet about her grandmother, Debra Winant, receiving the first dose of a vaccine. The 101 year old had fled the from the Netherlands as a college student, receiving a scholarship for Holocaust refugees and becoming a teacher. Debra and her husband, another survivor she met through her scholarship, placed the highest value on education, seeing it as a transferable skill should they need to flee again, and they scrimped and saved to be able to pay for all of their grandchildren’s education. Her husband, however, still saved a few gold bars his whole life, just in case.

Debra Winant has made the most of her long life since retirement, filling it with almond croissants, novels in four languages — Dutch, French, German and English — and tons of coffee, though the coffee and croissants have been harder to come by during the pandemic; her favorite bakery is only doing takeaway. After she was widowed at 70, she even reunited with a boyfriend she left behind when she fled the Netherlands, a Christian man named Wim, and got several decades of joy with him, spending several months each year in the Hague with him.

“I think it really reconciled her with this huge loss,” said grandaughter Johanna. “I think it was really healing for her in a lot of ways to have a relationship with the Netherlands again, like to spend time there again.”

While Winant found her popularity on Twitter hilarious, but couldn’t quite grasp the scale — even Johanna, who regularly accrues 40-60 likes on tweets, described the experience as “vertiginous” — Ebert is more familiar with the experience. Forman helped track down the family of a liberating soldier who had given her a bank note on which he’d written her a note wishing her good luck. With the help of Twitter, they were able to meet via Zoom, and their story went viral.

“I always knew that it would also become my responsibility at my point, because she isn’t going to live forever, and this is the last moment to hear from Holocaust survivors like my great grandmother,” Forman told the BBC.

Lily Ebert and her great grandson have been actively advocating for Holocaust education and memorials, appearing on numerous news programs in the UK to share Ebert’s story, and spoke in support of building a Holocaust memorial near the Houses of Parliament in London to ensure that a reminder of the atrocities would always be close at hand.

“I’ve been using my Twitter to continue to educate about her testimony, because she really has devoted her whole life to Holocaust education,” Forman told TalkRadio. “But I think everyone should use social media because there is a good side of Twitter and it can be used for education.”

Johanna, however, wanted to ensure the audience got the real story — that the readers knew her grandmother is more than a feel-good anecdote. She worried nuance would get lost as the story was picked up by viral outlets such as Upworthy.

“Trying to divorce it from any political content felt a little weird to me,” she said. So she expanded her thread, adding that her Oma plastered the car she drove well into her 90s with progressive bumper stickers from the likes of Planned Parenthood and Medicare for All.

“I think that’s an important aspect of the story as well. That being a Holocaust refugee isn’t just some sort of feel-good triumph over adversity, but really shaped her sense of justice and the kind of world that we should be working for,” Johanna said. “I just wanted to be clear about who my Oma was.”

Mira Fox is a fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected], or on Twitter @miraefox.

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