Hundreds of Holocaust survivors in Austria and Slovakia received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday, acknowledging past suffering and honoring resilience 76 years after Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
More than 400 surviving Austrians, most in the 1980s or 1990s, are expected to receive photos at the congress center in Vienna. Some were brought by shuttle or ambulance, while others were accompanied by their children. The most suitable among them took the subway.
“We owe it to them,” said Erika Jakubowitz, who is organizing a major vaccination campaign for the Jewish community in Vienna. “They have suffered so many injuries and felt even more insecure during this pandemic.”
Jakubowitz organized the vaccination device with the support of the Austrian Ministry of Health and the Vienna city authorities. Twelve doctors, all members of the Viennese Jewish community, joined in to shoot older Jews.
While the event took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, vaccinations were not limited to Shoah survivors. All Jews in the area over the age of 85 had the right to receive them during the special worship.
Some of Vienna’s 8,000 members of the Jewish community were vaccinated in December, when residents of a Jewish nursing home received their first doses, Jakubowitz said.
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In the past month, the majority of elderly Austrians living in old people’s homes have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the Austrian news agency APA reported.
Earlier this week, the president of the European Jewish Congress called on all countries in the European Union to ensure that Holocaust survivors have access to coronavirus vaccines as soon as possible.
During the Third Reich, more than 6 million European Jews were killed by the Nazis. The EJC estimates that today only about 20,000 Holocaust survivors still live in the European Union.
“Throughout their lives, they have shown a strong strength of spirit, but in the current crisis, many have unfortunately died alone and in pain or are now fighting for their lives, and many others are suffering from extreme isolation,” said European Jewish Congress President Moshe Cantor. “We have a duty to the survivors to ensure that they can live their last years with dignity, without fear and in the company of their loved ones.”
Vaccination efforts in the 27 EU countries began slowly with insufficient doses available, leading to widespread criticism of officials.
In a project similar to the one in Vienna, the Jewish community in Bratislava, Slovakia, also vaccinated Holocaust survivors on Wednesday.
“We are very, very grateful that the vaccinations are taking place on this symbolic day,” said Tomasz Stern, head of the Jewish community in Bratislava.
About 128 survivors were due to receive their first shot at the Jewish community center in Bratislava on Wednesday and another 330 in Slovakia in the coming days.
In Israel, home to many Holocaust survivors, more than 80% of those over the age of 70 received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 60% received the second dose. Because Israel’s vaccination campaign is moving so fast, officials say there is no need to single out Holocaust survivors.
Still, about 900 Holocaust survivors died of COVID-19 in Israel last year before vaccines were available, and about 5,300 survivors were infected, according to Israel’s National Statistics Office.
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Most of those killed in the Auschwitz death camp were Jews from all over 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 killed in the death camps.
Since World War II ended more than three-quarters of a century ago, approximately 240,000 Holocaust survivors worldwide are elderly. Because many were deprived of proper nutrition when they were young, they suffer from numerous medical problems today.
In addition, many people live isolated lives, having lost their entire families, and also have psychological stress due to their persecution under the Nazis.
None of those who received the shots in Vienna wanted to be interviewed by reporters, a fact that Jakubowitz attributes to constant concern among Holocaust survivors.
“People are afraid they can be recognized,” she said. “We know we live in a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise. So people are much more careful about what they do.”