The COVID-19 vaccination clinic for Holocaust survivors in a local synagogue started out a bit ominously: A police cruiser was stationed outside and a bomb-sniffing German Shepherd was deployed inside, zealously looking for explosives.
“Unfortunately, it’s because we’re Jewish,” said Rabbi Danielle Eskow, who organized the clinic Thursday at Congregation Kehillath Israel, a conservative synagogue in Brookline. “We have to worry about these things.”
The idea for the clinic came from the rabbi’s physician sister, Marisa Tieger. They’d been chatting about how unfair it was that as healthy women in their 30s they had easy access to the vaccine by virtue of their professions, while people much older — especially Holocaust survivors— are struggling to get it. The state’s overwhelmed vaccination program has been riddled with problems, including an inadequate vaccine allotment, scant appointments, and a clunky appointment booking system prone to crashing. Another hurdle is that two of the largest mass vaccination centers — Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium — are hard to get to.
Tieger suggested they join forces: Eskow could use her connections in the Jewish community to organize a clinic, and she would administer the vaccines. “I see patients every day, and this is such a vulnerable population,” said Tieger, director of the Ocular Trauma Service at Mass Eye and Ear, speaking of Holocaust survivors. “They’re our only connection left to this tragedy.”
Pulling such a clinic together in just a month was full of challenges, not least of which was: How would she find survivors? Many are not computer-savvy, and so not likely to be receiving email alerts.
“I don’t know anyone keeping track of them,” said Janet Stein Calm, president of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors & Descendants of Greater Boston. “It’s a very difficult list to keep track of. There are survivors who don’t want their names and addresses published on any list. That’s what happened in Europe.”
But Eskow, 34, an indie rabbi who runs Online Jewish Learning, a virtual Jewish education program, was determined. The Holocaust has been a big part of her family life. Her husband Jon’s late grandparents were survivors and she was very close to them. She delivers meals to survivors on Shabbat and holidays through a Jewish delivery platform, JewBer.
She cast a wide net for survivors, partnering with Janet Stein Calm’s group, JewBer, and Jewish Family & Children’s Service. She made 90 cold calls. “For some of them, you’d hear that ‘doo, doo, doo’ and then, “this number is disconnected,” and my heart would go to my stomach,” she said. About 25 survivors signed on, and Eskow opened the clinic up to children of survivors and others over 65, or those with medical conditions.
“It was amazing to see how many people care about these Holocaust survivors,” her sister said.
Dr. Justin Holtzman, a Brookline internist who runs a state-authorized community clinic, provided the vaccines. Rabbi Bill Hamilton agreed to convert the synagogue’s social hall to a pop-up outpatient clinic. Children in the synagogue’s preschool painted “Welcome” signs. Eskow’s three young children made cards for each of the survivors, with messages like, “We are so glad you got your vaccine!” Volunteers from JewBer packed gifts of mischloach manot, or Purim gifts.
“Gillette Stadium is a vaccine factory,” said Eskow. “I wanted this to be special.”
Tieger and two other doctors were on hand to vaccinate a total of 120 people including two survivors who were 101. The number of survivors who showed up had dwindled to 12, since some who’d signed up were able to get earlier appointments.
Among the survivors was Marianne Kronenberg, 86. Originally from Budapest, she was a child during the war, one of thousands of Jews sheltered in a “safe” house established by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. It was so crowded she and her mother slept standing up, leaning against a wall; there were daily raids where Jews were taken away.
Awful memories have been revisiting her during the pandemic. “The trauma for me this past year has been the feeling of isolation. You are shut in and thinking, “Oh, it’s happening again.” You feel there is a force out there, out to kill you – COVID – irrational as it might sound. But then you also say, ‘Wait a minute, there are no armed men coming to get you.’”
Kronenberg, who recently had a heart attack, said she was thrilled to get her vaccination in a synagogue. “You feel better when you are among Jewish people,” she said. “I envy American Jews who are totally comfortable with non-Jews.”
Rose Abendstern, 89, was waiting nearby for her vaccination, the only survivor of her family in Belgium. She survived “miraculously” because her parents sent her to live with a non-Jewish family in 1942, two days before there was a raid in their town and her family was deported to Auschwitz. Orphaned and against all odds, she made her way to New York and eventually earned a doctorate in French at Bryn Mawr. She went on to teach at several universities including Smith College, Brandeis, and the University of Massachusetts.
“Thank you,” she said with delight when Eskow gave her children’s card and the mischloach manot. “I’m so grateful.”
Among the children of survivors was a woman who gave her name only as Betty; she was scrolling through her phone, where the background image was her parents’ black and white engagement photo. “I keep them with me all the time,” she said. “I’m here today because if my parents were alive, they would say they would want me to be here and make sure I’m safe.”
The room was mostly quiet save for these men and women, seated on socially-distanced chairs.
One of them was Daniel Krasa, whose parents both survived Terezin. His father Edgar was a cook and barracks-mate of Rafael Schachter, a conductor who organized a choir in the camp that gave 16 performances of Verdi’s epic Requiem. Krasa sang in all 16 of them, including the final one for a delegation from the International Red Cross with Eichmann and other top SS officers present. The story is the basis of a documentary film and the concert-drama, Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin.
Krasa survived deportation to Auschwitz, slave labor and being shot during a death march. He eventually became a Holocaust educator and ran a popular Boston restaurant.
One of the last vaccinations of the day went to Julie Ross. Her father, Polish-born Stephan Ross who died a year ago this week, is regarded as a Massachusetts treasure. He was the founder of the New England Holocaust Museum in Boston, gave countless lectures about his brutal wartime experiences, and became a prominent Holocaust educator.
But Julie Ross explained that one of the reasons her father survived the camps was because of another inmate named Gimple who risked his life to bring extra food back from his work in the kitchen, and keep his friends alive.
Ross and Gimple were liberated from Dachau together, and both eventually found their way to Newton, Massachusetts, where they remained friends. Ross said she had just learned something startling about his story: Gimple’s grandson Jon was Rabbi Eskow’s husband.
“I said to Rabbi Eskow, ‘You guys keep saving my family’s life,’” said Ross, who has cancer.
“I have a sense that up there, Dad is pulling some strings. ‘He’s saying to Gimple, ‘Hey, my daughter needs a vaccine!”
Linda Matchan is a Boston journalist and documentary filmmaker.
Rabbi moves Holocaust survivors front of vaccine line