When Vienna briefly lifted its lockdown last August, I met 90-year-old Helga Kinski, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz who loved speaking with school kids almost as much as they enjoyed meeting her. We laughed and spoke about books we’d been reading. A few days later, I received a phone call: Helga fell. She was no longer with us.
When you work at an oral history institute that has spent years interviewing Holocaust survivors, you expect to lose them. That’s why, in 2006, we started holding monthly meetings for them in Vienna and Budapest. There’s nothing they enjoy more than meeting with high school students.
Then came last March, and our monthly meetings stopped. The Vienna Jewish community set up a hotline for older community members and sent masks to those over 60. The Jewish youth club manned the phones to call everyone to see if they needed anything — cash, groceries, medicine or psychological help.
Tanja Eckstein, the woman who interviewed most of our survivors in Austria, now phones the survivors in our club regularly — all 90 of them.
A few weeks ago, thanks to the Austrian Federal Ministry of Health and the City of Vienna, the Jewish community arranged to vaccinate every Holocaust survivor in the city.
Then some of our colleagues came up with an idea: to send a book to our survivors every month and filter those orders through a local bookshop that has been struggling. The book club idea caught on, and friends now send books to Holocaust survivors in Prague, Budapest, Sofia and soon to those in Bratislava. Every book sale is filtered through yet another bookshop.
Those in our Vienna club with macular degeneration — hardly uncommon among 95- to 99-year-olds — now receive boxes of Viennese chocolates every month. Raise your hand if you think someone complained.
Since lockdown isn’t going to end soon enough, we started a phone-a-joke program, and twice each month actors and comedians are phoning Holocaust survivors to share stories with them.
It seems everyone wants to help. The German ambassador to Austria was keen to send out 90 copies of a new novel by the German Book Prize winner, the U.S. ambassador in Sofia is looking into which American writer (translated into Bulgarian) will work best for Holocaust survivors there, and more than a dozen American families have signed up to underwrite a month’s set of books.
The Claims Conference, the largest Holocaust survivor organization in the world, let us know they are there to help, too, as has the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism.
Of the 1,200 Holocaust survivors we interviewed in 15 European countries between 2000 and 2009, less than 15 percent are still with us. Ida Beck is one of them. Ida spent the entire war in Vienna, hiding with strangers, in cellars and even in closets. She met her future husband, Fritz, shortly after the war. Fritz had spent seven years in concentration camps.
The two of them did not speak of the past. They had no children and ran their small jewelry shop. Ida lost Fritz in the 1990s.
Because she had been hidden for so long, Ida refuses to stay in her flat. Although she uses a walker and has a live-in companion, she insists on taking short walks daily, always double-masked.
When the Jewish old-age home received its vaccines, Tanja Eckstein picked her up and brought her there, and Ida got her jab. As she headed for the door on her walker, I asked, “But, Ida, this place is so nice, why don’t you just live here?” I couldn’t see her facial expression behind her mask, but Ida snorted and said, “What, here? This place is for old people!”
Ida Beck will be 100 in May.