Yom HaShoah in the times of COVID-19
Content notes: the Holocaust, genocide, eugenics, trauma, death, mourning, mass murder, Nazism, antisemitism, hate
The first thing I knew about Nazis was that they hated me for being Jewish.
It wasn’t until I was a little older that I began to understand what led them to such hatred to be able to do what they did. I still don’t understand fully, and I don’t think I ever will. But I did know that they believed they were a superior race, and that they wanted to exterminate anyone “inferior”, whose lives they deemed to be less valuable. And I knew that for whatever reason, they had decided that the lives of certain people had less value. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I have always felt the responsibility to never let myself fall prey to the same hateful rhetoric and beliefs that had led otherwise good people to become synonymous with evil. As a Jewish, queer, and disabled person, it is deeply personal to me to not let the lessons of the Shoah be forgotten. And as a human, I am deeply invested in questioning how we determine worth and value.
This week is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. It falls on the 27th day of the month of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, and this year it falls on the 20th and 21st of April. Many Jews will take Yom HaShoah to grieve, light a candle for, and remember all of the six million Jews—my grandparents’ families among them—who perished in the Holocaust, as well as to honor the survivors. It is a time to reflect and to try and understand and honor the promise of “never forget”. This year is no exception, but this year, I have seen more and more of the rhetoric that echoes that of Nazism.
We have seen COVID-19 sweep the world, and change the way we talk about lives. We have seen ageist, xenophobic, and racist speech from individuals, including those who hold positions of power in government. We have seen anti-Asian violence, and we have seen medical racism more on display than ever before. We have continued to see Republicans make rollbacks to welfare programs, and see people living in cages, deprived of humane living conditions and medical attention. And we have seen eugenic, ableist rhetoric become the norm, and rise to the forefront of public discourse again and again. Learning about that bigotry and what motivated such hatred from the time I was young has helped me be better able to identify when I see that same logic, either in myself or in our own society.
The conversation around COVID-19 has been difficult to watch, from the perspective of someone who is immunosuppressed, and as someone who has a deep personal connection to the Holocaust, for that reason. I’m worried we’re not remembering our past, and I’m worried we’re not taking any lessons from it. I’m worried we’ve forgotten how to value a life.
This idea of (de)valuing lives has been at the forefront of my mind as COVID-19 has continued to sweep the world, leaving devastation and grief in its wake. First, there was the dismissal of “don’t worry—it will only impact chronically ill and elderly people” (implying that those two populations are expendable); followed closely by “people should really care now, now that we have seen it impacts even the young and nondisabled,” which I wrote about for Huffington Post. Then came the decisions made by doctors in Italy about who gets a ventilator. The grim task they were faced with was spoken of internationally, before we began to see them take place here, too. Some disabled folks with their own ventilators even had to reckon with the threat of having their ventilators removed to be given to someone who was deemed more worthy. These constant decisions and declarations about whose life has value–and why–has inevitably brought up thoughts of the Holocaust, when disabled lives were also deemed inherently less valuable. Nazis deemed disabled folks “useless eaters”–not being exploitable as laborers in a capitalist society was among the reasons that led to Nazis to see disabled folks as being disposable entirely. They also saw disabled folks as a blight on the Aryan race. Like Jewish ones, disabled lives were deemed less valuable.
I am disabled. I have a cluster of related and often co-occurring autoimmune diseases that limit my mobility and functionality. These diseases also happen to have high occurrence rates in Ashkenazim. I also have PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)—something which epigenetics point to as being directly linked to my grandparents being survivors. Internalized ableism and antisemitism has been a challenge for me for years, and the overlap of being both disabled and Jewish was a struggle for me in many ways. First, I was reluctant to seek health care—mental health care and “physical” health care—lest I fulfill the stereotype of the anxious hypochondriac, neurotic Jew. Secondly, I had to grapple with the idea of being genetically good, or genetically bad. Did having a genetic illness—particularly one more common in Ashkenazi Jews—mean that my genes really were bad? Did it mean I was less deserving of space on this planet, and the same rights as everyone else? If I was unable to find work that would accommodate my disability and was therefore unable to pay for my own way, then what right did I have to continue to have human needs, like healthcare? Third, if I was so hated by so many—did that really mean that my life did have less value?
I had to look at what I thought of as good and bad, and what influenced my understanding of what that means. Ultimately, I came to understand that the source of my feelings of being Lesser was a feeling of being burdensome, and for not contributing in the ways that a capitalist society has taught me matters. I was no longer working and had lost much of my financial and physical independence. It took me a long time to learn to value what I could contribute to society–things like kindness and goodwill, like writing and art, like humor and love. Those things are precious. I learned how to value a life on my own terms. I do not think the value of a life can be measured in productivity; in hours clocked or dollars paid.
Oftentimes, the reason why we devalue the lives of others is because they are different from us, and we don’t understand them like we understand ourselves, so we don’t fully recognize their humanity. Maybe if Jews had been less segregated from gentiles, they would have learned to see us as human, and to recognize themselves in us. Some disabled people may move or sound or look or function differently from you, but we are still just as human as any nondisabled person is, and our lives still have value. I feel it’s vital to make that point in these times especially, when I so often see rhetoric diminishing the value of disabled people, and accepting the loss of their lives.
My connection to the Holocaust did a lot to help me overcome my internalized ableism. I learned to reconsider what I thought of as valuable, and it made me critical of who we, as a society, let define for us what makes someone or something valuable. It helped me to understand that the inevitable outcome of an ideology like Naziism–an ideology in which people are valued based on their productivity and their similarity to those in power–is genocide and fascism. And it helped me to learn to recognize when that ideology comes up in others.
As we remember and mourn those who perished in the Shoah, it is imperative that we take whatever lessons we possibly can from those millions of deaths. We cannot let ourselves fall prey to eugenicist rhetoric that suggests that disabled people’s lives have less value. I do not have the answers for how to deal with a shortage of medical equipment (one that is manufactured and was wholly preventable, but exists, nonetheless). But I do know that the answer is not to decide that some people are worth less, just because of who they are.
Zipporah Arielle is a 20-something writer currently living in Nashville, Tennessee. Zipporah is best known as @coffeespoonie on social media, where they discuss issues like culture, justice, policy, antisemitism, disability, and how cute their dog is. They have written for Bustle and The Huffington Post in the past, and was named as one of the top ten disabled voices to follow in The Tempest. For more of their work, you can find Zipporah on Twitter @coffeespoonie.