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Holocaust survivors to get COVID-19 vaccinations on Auschwitz liberation day

The silhouette of a man walking through the gate of the Sachsenhausen Nazi death camp north of Berlin
A man walks through the gate of the Sachsenhausen Nazi death camp, north of Berlin, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2019.
(Markus Schreiber / Associated Press)

Hundreds of Holocaust survivors in Austria and Slovakia were poised to get their first COVID-19 vaccinations Wednesday in acknowledgment of their past suffering and as a special tribute 76 years after the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, where the Nazis killed more than 1 million Jews and others.

“We owe this to them,” said Erika Jakubovits of the Jewish Community of Vienna, which organized the vaccination drive. “They have suffered so much trauma and have felt even more insecure during this pandemic.”

More than 400 Austrian Holocaust survivors, most in their 80s or 90s, were expected to get their first COVID-19 shots at Vienna’s convention center Wednesday, which is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some were being brought by shuttle or by ambulance, while others were brought in by their children. Some even planned to come by subway.

Jakubovits organized the vaccination drive with support from the Austrian Health Ministry and Vienna city officials. Twelve doctors, all members of the Viennese Jewish community, volunteered to vaccinate the Shoah survivors.

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Vaccinations were also to be offered to all other Jewish residents in the area older than 85.

Some Holocaust survivors from Vienna’s 8,000-person Jewish community already received the vaccination in December, when residents of the community’s Jewish nursing home were inoculated, Jakubovits said.

In these frightening times, I am struck by the heroic and merciful acts I first encountered as a young child behind barbed wire.

More broadly, a majority of elderly Austrians living in nursing homes have already received their first COVID-19 shots, the Austrian news agency APA reported.

Earlier this week, the president of the European Jewish Congress called on all of the European Union’s 27 countries to ensure that Holocaust survivors have access to COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible.

With the end of World War II now more than seven decades ago, the world’s approximately 240,000 Holocaust survivors are all elderly. Since many were deprived of proper nutrition when they were young, they suffer from numerous medical issues today. In addition, many live isolated lives and suffer psychological stress from having lost their entire families to Nazi persecution.

More than 6 million European Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Third Reich.

Holocaust remembrances have been upended this year by a new enemy: COVID-19.

The vast majority of those killed in the Auschwitz death camp were Jews from across Europe, but other non-Jewish prisoners, including Poles, Roma and Soviet soldiers, were among the victims.

About 192,000 Jews lived in Austria before World War II. After the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, which was enthusiastically supported by many Austrians, more than 100,000 Jews fled the country.

Tens of thousands were murdered in death camps, and by the end of the war in 1945, only very few Austrian Jews remained in the country, most having hidden from the Nazis.

The European Jewish Congress estimates that only about 20,000 Holocaust survivors still live in the EU today.

An 88-year-old Holocaust survivor became the first, and so far only, Israeli to die of COVID-19.

”Throughout their lives, they have shown mighty strength of spirit, but in the current crisis, many have sadly died alone and in pain, or are now fighting for their lives, and many others are suffering from extreme isolation,” said Moshe Kantor, the head of the congress. “We have a duty to survivors to ensure that they are able to live their last years in dignity, without fear and in the company of their loved ones.”

In a similar project to that in Vienna, the Jewish community of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, was also to vaccinate Shoah survivors Wednesday.

“We’re very, very grateful that the vaccinations are taking place on this symbolic day,” said Tomas Stern, the head of the city’s Jewish community.

Some 128 survivors were to receive their first shot at Bratislava’s Jewish community center Wednesday and another 330 across the country in the coming days.


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