The numbers reflect caring for our elderly
Our community has felt the impact of COVID-19 hugely, what with 106 people having lost their lives to the coronavirus, and so many more becoming very ill with it.
And while there are many who literally didn’t even know they had it, there are those who, months later, are still feeling the consequences of this horrible virus.
The number, 106, may seem like just a number and not especially significant. However, we need to remember that each one of those 106 people was a person with a family, perhaps children and grandchildren, and friends who lost someone they loved dearly. Each one is a massive loss.
Each one had a significant life, and a phenomenal story to tell. Each one was loved and loved many. Some had long wonderful lives, while others may have had tough existences with much sadness. And while we now know that the average age of Jewish people in South Africa who have died was 82.7, there were many who were still in their prime with so much to live for.
What for me is very obvious about this high number and the average age of those who have died is that we look after our elderly. I say this because, if that’s the average age, there must be a great deal of people much older than that who were healthy before this pandemic. It’s a testament to how well we care for our elderly in our community. This explains the high death rate, rather than anything else. The price we have paid for looking after our elderly with kid gloves is a really high death rate during this pandemic.
So, yes, the number is high, and yes, it means these people have left us behind – and nothing can take that away – but it also means that we can really be grateful for how we treat our elderly. I believe that rather than self-flagellating, we should honour the people and organisations like the Chevrah Kadisha, among others, who go the extra mile in caring for our elderly.
It also speaks to something intrinsic in our community in how we honour our aged folk. I know so many people who, as their parents get older, do whatever it takes to give them the best years of their lives. Clearly this is why we have such a huge elderly community that is now so highly susceptible to COVID-19.
Every single one of those who died deserves to be honoured and remembered. And they will be, by those who love them, whether they are here or in other parts of the world.
This is a difficult time, and there have been too many deaths and too much illness. Most of those people who experienced loss at the hands of this virus weren’t able to be there for their loved ones in the end. In fact, their loved ones had mostly lonely deaths, and sitting shiva for them was equally lonely.
And, funerals have been sadder than ever because so few were able to attend.
Through this COVID-19 time, we have paid tribute to many doctors, paramedics, people who have fed the starving, and others who have shone and been noticed for the work they have done.
However, those who work for the Chev and deal with burials and funerals are never recognised for the work they do. They are truly unsung heroes, and do work that most of us can’t even contemplate doing. These people go unnoticed, but they do their jobs with such compassion, professionalism, dedication, and pride.
Those who work for the Chev’s burial services have been working through the night for our community. They don’t complain in spite of putting themselves at risk and – especially in July – under such immense pressure. In the past month, they sometimes had as many as eight funerals a day that they had to plan and make happen. All a family has to do is call them, and the rest is ‘miraculously’ done.
Going to a funeral over this time is sadder than ever because when someone gets a good send off when they die, there’s a sense of the love and respect they inspired in their lives.
But now, COVID-19 funerals are so small, with so few there to say goodbye. In many of these cases, you can count on some of the closest relatives not being there because they tested positive. In some cases, they are sitting in their cars in the parking lot. So, during the funeral, the pressure is on the Chev to make it as pain-free and dignified as possible in spite of the size. And it does.
Going back to the number 106, I believe that because of our communal services, like Hatzolah, our doctors, and our hospitals, we have managed to save rather than lose more lives.
As the days go on, I hear more and more people being astonished that after being told that their loved one is unlikely to survive, they recover. This is clearly because over these past months, our medical and paramedic teams have learnt so much and are applying it to the best of their ability. They are saving many lives that they wouldn’t have been able to three to six months ago.
In this dark time, we have so much to be grateful for. I, for one, thank my lucky stars I was born into this community.
Getting my head around six million individuals
If ever you question the importance of commemorating Yom Hashoah, which we do this week, keep in mind that we’re not talking about statistics, but the systematic annihilation of a huge percentage of our people.
In fact, before the Holocaust, 60% of all Jews lived in Europe. Two out of three of them were murdered during the war. In 1933, there were 9.5 million Jews in Europe and this number was down to 3.5 million in 1950.
This is hard to absorb, I know, but so often, people dismiss comparisons of the Holocaust with the behaviour of Israel or even with apartheid. The more I acknowledge what it means to murder six million Jews systematically, the more I realise that there is simply no comparison.
This year marks 80 years since the beginning of the mass annihilation of Jews and each year, fewer and fewer survivors remain. Many died this year of COVID-19. Their survival enabled us to understand what they lived through and how six million of their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins, aunts, uncles, and other family and friends were brutally murdered. The only reason for their death was because they were Jewish.
Until recently, the number six million was simply a very large number to me. Although I had seen the movies and read the books, I couldn’t quite identify with it as being six million people like me and all those I love in this world. It really isn’t easy to absorb and comprehend this number in terms of individuals who had a future, perhaps a degree or three, a wife or a beloved, and children. They had potential and lives yet to be lived, but their lives were stolen from them way before their time.
The Nazis took away their humanity, their individuality, and attempted to make them just a number, which they tattooed on their arms.
Every year, on Yom Hashoah, we observe a ceremony under the auspices of the president of Israel known as “Unto Every Person there is a Name”, in which names of those who perished in the Holocaust are called out.
The point of this particular exercise is meaningful because an individual is given a name by their parents. And they and their families have a surname that they share. This makes every single person a unique individual. Each person has a name, a personality, a particular look, a way of walking, talking, and a way of being that is special to them. So, starting with a name we are given at birth, a person is individualised. And so every year on Yom Hashoah, we do our best around the world to individualise and humanise as many of the six million Jews who died as possible.
To date, Yad Vashem has recorded 4 800 000 names of Holocaust victims on its Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names, with more than 2 750 000 names registered on Pages of Testimony.
Here’s the thing: if we had all the names of the six million who were murdered, and could say each name, age, and place of death in one second, we could cover only 86 400 individual names in one 24-hour Yom Hashoah.
To read six million, we would need almost 70 days of 24-hour non-stop reading. If we recited names for only 12 hours a day, giving the reader time to sleep, eat, and have a few short breaks, we would need 138 days to cover the names of the six million Jews who were annihilated in the Holocaust. And that’s if you can read all their vital details in one second.
This brings me a little closer to understanding what the number six million actually means in terms of individuals.
On the Yad Vashem site (YadVashem.org), you can find lists of these names. I went to look this week and found 23 people with the surname Krost who were victims of the Holocaust. I know of a handful. I wonder who the others were. Were they also family?
Then, I looked at the lists of children’s names and there were literally hundreds of pages of names of children, some not even a year old. I couldn’t help the tears as I read names, ages, and where and how they died. I felt quite sick. I couldn’t help thinking that these littlies, who should have been playing and having fun without a care in the world, were brutally murdered because by chance they were born Jewish.
It was then that I decided that I was going to light the six commemorative candles with my sons this year. We will recite the El Maleh Rachamim prayer, and then start reading children’s names and keep going until we can’t anymore. I believe this will give us a better inkling of the massive horror of the millions who perished all because they were like us.
In this edition, there is a story about the Holocaust on page 12 that stands out for me. It’s about the Wannsee Conference, where the decision was made by the Nazi leadership to murder Jews en masse. What really hit me was Holocaust educator Dr Matthias Haß’s warning that it was because of the small incidents of antisemitism that the Wannsee House decision was made. It was the accumulation of decades of slowly building antisemitism that seeped into German society over years that eventually led to the dehumanisation of Jews, he said.
How often do we dismiss or not make a big deal about what seems to be minor incidents of antisemitism or racism? Sometimes it isn’t always so clear and sometimes it is. But it’s not easy to stick your neck out, especially when you are alone in a situation. And sometimes it might be cleverly disguised as anti-Israel sentiment.
The next time someone says to me, “Don’t make a big deal about it” referring to antisemitism, I will remember how I tried to get my head around the systematic murder of six million Jews.
Is the US losing interest in the Middle East?
The United States-Saudi Arabia relationship is a really interesting case study for those who watch Middle Eastern geopolitics closely. Some background to current events is necessary to set the context.
On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is a difficult ally. Its human-rights record is suspect, to say the least. It was clearly responsible for the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which caused a worldwide outcry. It has also been involved in a war in Yemen that has created a humanitarian disaster, with high civilian casualties and hunger, malnutrition, and illness in that country.
On the other hand, it’s a strategic US ally, and a stable, pro-Western country. It entered the war in Yemen for good reason – to prevent the Iranian-aligned Houthi forces from taking over the country. It was also the second biggest oil producer in the world in 2020.
President Joe Biden was left with a difficult choice. Heading up a Democratic administration, which supposedly prides itself on its support for human rights, he couldn’t leave things as they were. On the other hand, he couldn’t damage the US’s vital strategic and national interests. To this end, he seems to have attempted to walk a fine line by taking the following actions:
He released a redacted intelligence report that blamed the crown prince for being behind the murder of the journalist, but took no further action. He has made it clear that the US no longer supports the operations of the Saudi coalition in Yemen, and has temporarily paused the sale of offensive arms to Saudi Arabia, but has allowed the continued sale of defensive arms.
More importantly, he didn’t act when Saudi oilfields were once again attacked by Houthi missiles and drones on 7 March, which led to a spike in oil prices briefly above $70 (R1 021) a barrel.
The US said on the Monday that its commitment to defend Saudi Arabia was “unwavering”, and in a Twitter post, the US mission in Riyadh condemned the attacks, which it said demonstrated a “lack of respect for human life” and a “lack of interest in the pursuit of peace”. However, the US took no further action.
The main issue, however, which is being brought to the fore by the awkward US-Saudi dance, is that the US is losing interest in the Middle East. The area is much less of a priority than it used to be.
There are a few reasons for this. First, the US no longer relies on imports of oil from the region. Last year, according to The Economist, the US was in fact a net exporter of oil and natural gas.
Second, the US has been involved in long and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost trillions of dollars and achieved very little.
Finally – and this has been the policy across three US presidents now – the US wants to pivot to Asia and focus much more on countering a rapidly growing and influential China. It wants to lighten its burdens in the Middle East, and instead focus its energies on what everyone believes will be the world’s leading growth region of the 21st century.
This doesn’t mean the US will withdraw totally. It still has troops all over the area, and has vital interests in preventing a nuclear arms race there and not allowing terrorist groups to grow and find sanctuary. However, given recent events, it seems clear that it will scale down its activities and no longer expend the time and energy it has in the past. Its military activities will be curtailed.
The effect of this clear signal from the US has been dramatic, and it no doubt played a major role in the Abraham Accords and signing of peace treaties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. If and when the Saudis join the emerging Israel-Sunni reproachment, it will no doubt also be due to the fear of less US involvement in the region and of therefore having to face their enemies alone.
While this development has been positive for Israel in that it now has new strategic allies in the region, bringing much more diplomatic strength and regional influence, in the long term, there must be concern.
The US moves towards Saudi Arabia are a portent for it becoming much less involved in the region, and clearly show its intention not to be dragged into any more wars there.
While Israel now has a lot of new allies as a result, and it seems the friendships will be warm, none of the new allies are major military powers. Local regional alliances, useful as they are, cannot replace the world’s main superpower, and an unstable region will surely become still more unstable without the US’s active presence.
Israeli leaders have long suspected this, but the fact that the US hasn’t responded militarily to the two recent attacks on the Saudi oilfields when in the past, under any president, there would have been a robust and strong response, shows how dramatically things have changed. The US can no longer be relied on as a military ally. Israel will be left to fend pretty much for itself if and when the next war breaks out in the Middle East.
- Harry Joffe is a Johannesburg tax and trust attorney.
Looking for descendants of Lithuanian great-grandfather
I would be grateful for any information a reader may have as I search for descendants of my great-grandfather, Eliahu Zvi Bloch, a Kohen who lived in Anassisic/Anusshishok, Lithuania, near the Latvian border, from roughly 1820 to 1900.
My grandfather, Elchanon, the son of Eliahu Zvi and his third wife, Sarah Oralowich, who grew up in an orphanage, is the only one of the family who emigrated to the United States. I recall hearing that some of Elchanon’s siblings or half-siblings emigrated to South Africa in the first half of the last century.
I know very little else. I believe the family migrated to Lithuania from Germany around 1750 or 1800, that Eliahu Zvi’s father lived to be 100, and that Eliahu Zvi was 66 years old when my grandfather was born. It’s possible that some family members migrated to Israel, either prior to statehood or after living in South Africa. I would welcome any information, even if marginally related to my family, such as knowledge of life in Anassisic/Anusshishok. I live in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States, and can be reached at email@example.com
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