For Arie Kasiarz, the decision to get his COVID-19 vaccine was a simple one.
“I want to live. My mind is sharp. I would like a couple more years,” he said in an interview at his Northeast Philadelphia home Thursday. “And I have something good to live for” — two sons, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Kasiarz, 94, still marvels that he was able to raise a family at all. When he was 12, Nazis in occupied Poland forced him and his family into the Lodz ghetto. There, more than 160,000 Jewish people were trapped in a cycle of forced labor and starvation and eventually shipped to concentration camps. Kasiarz was one of only a few hundred survivors.
After the war, he moved to Philadelphia, met his wife, Doris — “a Yankee Doodle, from South Philly,” he joked — and found solace and friendship with other Holocaust survivors, many of whom became lifelong friends. Until recently, they met regularly through a support group run by the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and survivors, many of whom are in their 80s and 90s, faced particularly high risk of serious illness. But the isolation and fear of the lockdown also risked unearthing old traumas, said Carly Bruski, the manager of the survivor support program.
JFCS made sure survivors knew they could rely on the organization for food, health care, and social connection. They delivered food to homebound survivors, helped those who needed it receive in-home care, helped clients connect through Zoom, and launched a popular newsletter written by survivors.
And by the time the vaccine became available, Bruski knew that any vaccination program the organization set up had to engage survivors with similar attention to the specific needs of people who have been through intense trauma.
With funding from the Seed the Dream Foundation, an educational nonprofit that also supports Holocaust survivors, and vaccines from Jefferson University Hospital, JFCS staff helped vaccinate 200 survivors, plus their spouses and caretakers, starting in February.
They arranged Ubers to take clients to Jefferson clinics, staffed clinics with JFCS staff who knew the clients well, and walked survivors through “every step of the process,” Bruski said. They posted signs in English and Russian and had translators on hand to put clients at ease.
“There can be a series of triggers for Holocaust survivors around being in a medical facility in general,” Bruski said. “Some people had those experiences at the camps where often it was the doctors making those selections, and there was experimentation — a really heavy evilness around what it meant to be a doctor and engage in any type of medical process during the war. It’s something they have to ground themselves, and work through, when they have to stand in line, when they don’t know the doctors.”
Jefferson officials said they hope to use the Holocaust survivors’ vaccine program as a model to help other groups who may need special accommodations while getting vaccinated.
“It gave them privacy and ease of access,” said Stephanie Conners, Jefferson’s chief operating officer.
Survivors who got the vaccine said the kindness of staff made the process easy.
“Everyone — they care about me. I never saw such a service. I was like a princess, waiting for a personal car,” said Dora Goldovsky, who was a baby at the war’s outbreak and whose mother, a teacher in Bialystok, Poland, lost most of her family to Nazi killing squads. She spent her earliest years in a Belarussian orphanage, where her mother taught the children of partisan fighters, and moved to the United States in 1992.
After a year of pandemic isolation followed by a chaotic early vaccine rollout, many Philadelphia-area survivors had worried that they would not be able to receive the shot. “It was impossible to find anything,” said Vlad Fishman, a member of the JFCS survivor group who got his vaccine in early February.
Helena Swerdlik, who had seen friends get the vaccine but was unsure where she’d receive hers, was relieved when she got the call from JFCS that one was available.
“It was a blessing for us,” she said. Also a survivor from Poland, she was 7 when she, her mother, and sister fled to Germany, posing as gentiles, wandering the countryside and sleeping in barns to avoid capture.
Like Kasiarz, who’s been friends with the Swerdliks for decades, she missed her friends in the survivors’ group and their regular meetings, including a party every May to celebrate the anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. The last party was held in 2019.
The survivors made do with chats on Zoom, navigating new technology to stay connected with friends. “I’m not a computer girl. But now I am absolutely a modern woman,” Goldovsky said, laughing.
Some of the most extreme opponents of COVID-mitigation measures have falsely compared mask and vaccine mandates to conditions for Jews in Nazi Germany. Kasiarz was curt when asked what he thought of such rhetoric: “They do it for politics, and they do it for stupidity.”
He’s adamant that anyone eligible should get the vaccine: “You don’t live alone. You live with people,” he said.
Though many survivors are worried about the emergence of the delta variant and rising case counts, they’re grateful to be vaccinated, and to have spent time with family this summer after a year inside.
“It was a very hard time — very hard to stay in the house,” Swerdlik said. At her vaccine appointment, she was thrilled to run into a few friends from the support group whom she hadn’t seen since the beginning of the pandemic — but kept a social distance. “I was happy just to wave to them,” she said.
For Goldovsky, it was the support of her friends and family that kept her spirits up until she could be vaccinated.
“We’re supposed to — we survive,” she said. “From everything what we go through, we are here, thank God.”