The Coronavirus Diaries, Part 6: Virtual Commemorations of Memory and Survival

April 2020 has been a month of a roaring pandemic as well as searing memories of the Holocaust. Particular to the month has been the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz death camps, and the 77th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Public commemorations of these anniversaries and more have been broadcast on the internet. At the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC) virtual Yom HaShoah remembrance on Sunday, Gov. Charlie Baker delivered remarks, as did Rabbi Marc Baker, president and CEO of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

“As communities around the world commemorate Yom HaShoah,” Baker said, “we will honor the memories of those lost in the recalling of this horrific chapter of our Jewish and human history. We will also tell the stories of those who survived. Reminding ourselves that in the face of anyone or anything that tries to destroy us, the resilience of the human spirit and the Jewish people will overcome.”

April has also been designated as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, and Rachael Cerrotti, a third-generation Holocaust survivor and storyteller, has rolled out a new project for the occasion. Over the past decade, Cerrotti’s story has been entwined with her grandmother Hana’s story of survival during World War II. The only survivor of the Holocaust in her family, Hana was sent to Denmark by her parents at the beginning of the Holocaust. After the Nazis invaded Denmark, Hana made her way to Sweden and eventually settled in the United States.

Cerrotti’s project to tell her grandmother’s story culminated in a popular podcast produced in conjunction with USC Shoah Foundation called “We Share the Same Sky.” Founded by Steven Spielberg, the foundation houses over 100,000 hours of audio and visual testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Hana was interviewed for the project in 1998.

Cerrotti’s new undertaking is called “What Is Home Project.” Working again with USC Shoah Foundation, Cerrotti is collecting stories from survivors on the theme of home. She recently told JewishBoston: “Home is the heart of every survivor’s story. You flee your home—your home isn’t a space anymore. You also dream of home and the memory of home. You recreate your home. It’s this feeling of how do we get back that place, or will it ever come back? And yet here we are, being told to sit at home. It causes us to understand that home is not as simple as one thinks.”

Cerrotti has put out a call on social media for people to tell their stories of home “from this emotionally complex space [of the pandemic], and we’re encouraging people to do it in all types of forms, including poetry, photography or audio clips. Home can be a space in your head, a memory or a smell. It can also be very literal.”

In addition to presenting stories of survival throughout the Holocaust and beyond, Cerrotti is also curating a collection of tales of living during the pandemic. She envisions that within two generations, children will hear from grandparents about what it was like to live through the COVID-19 pandemic. “My goal is to get people to think about the power of intergenerational storytelling and to understand that we just don’t consume history, we create history,” she said. “To guide people in telling these stories, we have a different theme every week. Last week was ‘Spaces and Places.’ ‘Family’ is our topic for the week of April 20, and the following weeks we’re looking for stories that touch on ‘Resilience’ and ‘Messages for the Future.’”

I thought about the themes attached to Cerrotti’s project as I attended virtual broadcasts of Yom HaShoah events and listened to George Takei’s story in a Facing History and Ourselves webinar called “Standing Up to Racism, Then and Now.” Known for his role in the original “Star Trek” television series, Takei is a Japanese American who was interned with his family in “10 of the most desolate places in the United States” during World War II.

As it happens, April is also the 78th anniversary of the internment of Japanese Americans. “When I was 5 years old,” Takei said in his talk, I was categorized as an enemy alien in my own country.” Takei was born in Los Angeles and his mother was born in Sacramento, California. His father was brought by his parents from Japan to San Francisco when he was a young child.

Takei recalled that his family—his parents and two siblings—were ordered out of their Los Angeles home at gunpoint. “Because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor, we were seen as the enemy and alien,” he said. “War hysteria swept across the country, combined with racism. We were at war with Germany and Italy, but Italian Americans and German Americans looked like the rest of America. We looked different.”

Amazingly, Takei is not bitter. He credited his father with instilling in him a deep love for the United States. “I learned about American democracy from the man who suffered the most, who felt the pain of the failure of democracy the most but who firmly believed in the core ideals of our democracy,” he said.

Later in the week, I listened to Esther Ringel, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, tell her powerful story. Ringel, who was a child when she was deported, recalled how she was alone after the selection of prisoners at Auschwitz. It was the last time she saw her mother and brother. She said she owed her survival to a young woman named Eva, who shepherded Ringel to her liberation by the Russians. Ringel referred to her as an “angel.” Now in her 90s, Ringel lives in Israel and is the matriarch of a large and thriving family. She and Eva remain close.

Baker asked the JCRC Yom HaShoah attendees to bear in mind that the signature story of Jewish nationhood and survival is the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites endured 430 years of slavery under a succession of cruel pharaohs before they fled Egypt under threat of death. Jews have been commanded to relive this story in word and deed through the millennia.

To that end, Baker recalled something he recently heard at a virtual seder: “The retelling of the Passover story is as close as we can get to the genetic transfer of hope.” And, as it turns out, this week was an embodiment of that sentiment.


I am gloomy, and I feel guilty that I’m so blue. I have a warm home and a stocked refrigerator. I’m sheltering in place with my immediate family, whom I love very much. And yet. Even though there are glimpses of silver linings that reflect love and gratitude, this quarantine still feels like a punishment.

Sometimes my mind feels fuzzy. For example, I can’t remember why I argued with my husband the other day. I only recall that when I shouted at him, “Where was the ever-patient man I married 30 years ago?” He quietly answered, “He’s usually here.” A few hours later, as we kissed passionately — an act that feels forbidden in this new world — I couldn’t stop thinking: Did we just infect each other?

The virus spread like wildfire in my mother’s nursing home. She’s the latest patient to test positive for COVID-19. All I can think of is that despite the abuse that my mother heaped on me for so many years, I don’t want her to die alone.

Sheltering in place while symptom-less is its own madness. I indulge in the magical thinking that goes hand-in-hand with my panic disorder. If I do or do not do Y, X will or will not happen. Do my thoughts control me, or do I control them? Will I know if I’ve crossed the border into an irreversible nervous breakdown?

A friend says the worries I have about my well-being stem from a healthy curiosity, and curiosity thrives when you feel safe. The best I can say is that I am subconsciously safe. I have a big stash of medication and love. Those things are more precious than the toilet paper and the eggs I hoard.

When I can focus, I have work that I love. But I’m terribly behind on my journal entries. I am mulling over an idea inspired by a writing prompt I saw — “Write about a time where you were dead wrong about someone.” A few days later, I have an epiphany. My mother! I was dead wrong that her conditional love was typical.

My mother’s nursing home facilitates a Zoom call with her. She looks healthy, and she’s more engaged than confused this morning. For the moment, she is alive and curious about her grandchildren, who are on the call too. She doesn’t know she has COVID-19. She only knows she is safe.

This essay originally appeared in McSweeney’s A Force Outside Myself: Citizens Over 60 Speak

The Coronavirus Diaries, Part 5–Passover Entertainment and Poetic Solace

This week I heard Idina Menzel sing the Four Questions. Billy Porter serenaded me with “Let My People Go.” I gleaned wisdom from Rabbis David Wolpe, Dana Benson, Amichai Lau-Lavi, Mordechai Lightstone and Sharon Brous, who delivered a short, affecting sermon. She said the story in the Haggadah is one that has “held a grip on the human imagination for thousands of years, precisely because it was never just about what happened then but has also always been about what is happening now. [The world needs to be reminded of those who are] degraded and oppressed and enslaved and have walked on that long journey toward freedom.”
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All of this happened at “Saturday Night Seder,” a virtual event on YouTube this past Saturday. Jason Alexander emceed the festivities, and the likes of Beanie Feldstein, Henry Winkler and Rachel Brosnahan contributed to the star power. The seder was also a fundraiser for the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.

The “Saturday Night Seder” began with these declarative sentences:

3,000 years ago, our Jewish ancestors fled their homes in search of a better life.

Two weeks ago, some anxious Jews stuck inside our homes decided to put together a seder.

We invited all of our favorite people. Including you!

Given this seder’s stellar lineup, there was no doubt it was going to be entertaining. After all, Sarah Silverman found the afikomen Andy Cohen hid in a surprising place. In his inimitable way, Harvey Fierstein gifted the audience with permission to personalize the last line of the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

And then there were tears. There was the saltwater that stood in for the tears of our Israelite ancestors. There were my tears when “Next year in Jerusalem” became a rallying cry for next year with our families. Next year with actual hugs. Next year in health. Next year in peace. It was then that the seder went from celebrities to the heroes of our time—the people working in the COVID-19 hospital wards—ardently wishing for anyone listening to be reunited with the people they love and the places that comfort them.

I’m not one who easily cries. However, I saw my children in those people. My daughter is preparing to apply to medical school and my son is going to medical school in the fall. I am both proud and terrified. I feel as if I am sending them to war against an invisible enemy. As I wipe down every doorknob and package that comes into my house, I cry for the people arduously working in grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals. These brave workers confront and fight the coronavirus each and every day with all their might.

I also continue to find daily succor from people such as Dr. Craig Smith, surgeon-in-chief at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. Smith has emerged as the medical poet-in-residence of this pandemic. It began with a daily note he sent to his colleagues from the frontlines. He quickly gained a following for his deep empathy and crystalline prose. In a March 20 missive, Smith began with the latest grim statistics—there was an uptick in positive tests, hospital beds were vanishing, masks and ventilators were scarce and the curve—still rock solid—was nowhere near flattening. Smith, however, did not leave the story there for his readers.

He continued: “So, what can we do? Load the sled, check the traces, feed Balto, and mush on. Our cargo must reach Nome. Remember that our families, friends, and neighbors are scared, idle, out of work, and feel impotent. Anyone working in health care still enjoys the rapture of action. It’s a privilege! We mush on.”

Here was Smith referring to a dog sled race, long before the Iditarod, to beat the 1918 flu epidemic. There was more of his poetic prose and literary allusions for his April 1 entry:

“Writing on April 1, late in the day, I can’t possibly be the first person to shout out the first four lines of ‘The Waste Land’ (T.S. Eliot). But first or not, I can’t resist: ‘April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.’ The rest of the poem is much too long, too grim and overwrought for my taste. The line-breaks that highlight three verbs (breeding, mixing, stirring) are a nice writerly touch, but I admire it most for one phrase—mixing memory and desire. In an April that may be apocalyptically cruel, that is how we are poised, desiring spring.”

The Wall Street Journal described Smith’s emails as, “Winston Churchill’s radio speeches of this war.” Indeed, Smith’s notes have been equal parts encouragement and battle plan for his readers and colleagues. As the article observed, “The daily notes of this 71-year-old surgeon…have become essential dispatches for many people in search of leadership, courage and maybe even a pep talk.”

In what I have come to think of as a typical Smith flourish, he ended his April 11 message with lines from Emily Dickinson: “‘Hope is the things with feathers/That perches in the soul.’ Best known for the first line, I prefer the second: ‘Hard to reach with guns.’”

May we experience our versions of Jerusalem in the coming year. May we be with the ones we cherish, and in the places that make us happy, wherever we are next year.

Coronavirus Diaries, Part 4–Passover in a Pandemic

I have deleted every event on my calendar for the foreseeable future—everything except Passover. No matter how much I resist, Passover will arrive as it has for thousands of years on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan.

Passover marks the beginning of spring. It’s a holiday of liberation, a holiday where family and friends gather around my dining room table and read from the quintessential Passover text, the Haggadah. “Haggadah” means “telling,” and for centuries, we Jews have been telling each other our origin story—the story of the Exodus when a ragtag group of people enslaved in Egypt emerged as a vibrant nation.

Passover is coming, and yet we wake up to a world that feels like the much-too-long Blue Law Sundays of my childhood. Businesses are shuttered. There is hardly any movement on the streets. The claustrophobia of having nowhere to go is the prevailing feeling. It was only a few weeks ago that the coronavirus was menacing some faraway country. I laughed at my sister for stockpiling toilet paper early on. It was unthinkable that my favorite holiday wouldn’t include family and friends. But here we are. Welcome to the Passover edition of the “Pandemic of 2020.”

In an effort to outwit the pandemic, spring is abruptly canceled, freedoms are severely curtailed and we’re confined to squares on Zoom, waving and blowing kisses to our loved ones. It taxes the soul to live this way. My mother asks when this will be over. I don’t know. I try to keep her calm as I tamp down my own panic. I want to stop arguing with my husband about stocking up on Clorox wipes that we can’t find anyway. I’m afraid we’ll run out of food and medicine. Anything can set off this fear—terrifying statistics, news of a friend on a ventilator.

I’m traditional when it comes to Passover. It has always been a physical holiday for me. Aside from the spring cleaning, I shop weeks before the first seder. Every year, I come very close to hoarding matzah meal, macaroons and horseradish. I switch out my everyday plates and cutlery for dinnerware and silver that languishes in the basement until I bring them up for the annual eight-day festival.

It feels as if I undertook these preparations for the holiday a hundred years ago—before Passover food shopping became a death-defying act. They happened before I fractured my shoulder, and now I can barely lift a plate, never mind move an entire dinner service upstairs. Passover in my house is therefore greatly modified. This year, observing the holiday has to be good enough. I won’t change over my kitchen to the extent I did in years past. Passover preparations have become part of the emergency through which we are living.

There’s a lot of buzz about gathering this year in virtual seders. The plan is to commune with one another in our Zoom cubicles. I’m hopeful that will work with a ritual meal that has been a home celebration for centuries. After all, the Passover seder doesn’t require us to hold it in a synagogue. Its rituals are carried out at the intimacy of the dining room table. Anyone who can read from the Haggadah can lead the ceremony. We will need to take care in our virtual seders of not going through the motions. It’s too easy to drift online.

This moment has not been the first time Judaism has accommodated a new world foisted on us. After Judaism’s two ancient temples were destroyed over 500 years apart, the rabbis necessarily reinvented Judaism. It was genius the way they made it workable for the diaspora. When Jews scattered all over the world, the rabbis asked them to expand their imaginations and transform their tables into the altar of the non-existent temple.

The holiday of Passover is a leading reminder of how virtual post-temple Judaism became. In the daily liturgy, Jews are asked to remember the Exodus as if they experienced it themselves. That feat of recreation is the crux of Judaism. Jews know how to reach back through the millennia and relive the redemption of Passover. In that act of recreation, the Exodus narrative has been overlaid with historical tragedies, including the Holocaust. I need to believe that we can survive this current pandemic and add it to our arsenal of Passover stories.

Every year the seder ends with the declaration, “Next year in Jerusalem!” The hope is that the Messiah will have finally arrived, restoring us to the land of Israel. This year, we’ll also add a wish that at the moment is as improbable as the imminent coming of the Messiah: to celebrate Passover again with actual people seated at our dining room tables.