I was standing inside the gated convent in Namur, Belgium in 1945, watching the Maqui, fighting back the German troops out of Namur. I was a ten year old Jew hiding from the Nazis for two years. The screaming of delight from the children and nuns was discernible over the gun fire. We were jumping with joy at the prospect of freedom.
I only remember standing on a gate crossbar so my short physique could see the action, smiling but nevertheless still not feeling that anything had changed or would. The years of hiding in a church, on farms, in several gentile households, in an orphanage, and then in a convent had taken its toll, I guess.
I have never forgotten that what remained pervasive in my mind at that momentous time was that nothing would change. I stood there in a reverie after the Germans had been pushed back. Through ten years of therapy, a rather successful and happy family life, I never deciphered the epiphany I experienced at those gates. This naive ten-year-old decided that he would always be alone and would die alone.
In spite of that, I can’t say that I’ve lived less than a rich family life, been reasonably successful at work and achieved a good education. Yet that moment stayed with me. Why? When I was asked to comment on how I feel about the current untenable period, the moment at the gate returned. Covid 19 has not replaced Nazism, but the resulting conditions give Covid a parallel framework for me.
I’ve self-quarantined for most of the day. I still venture out to the post office to get my mail, to the local supermarket to get groceries, visit my significant other, and venture onto a tennis court. I have not suffered what hundreds, nay, thousands of people have experienced in 2020. It has only reminded me what it was like to be persona non grata: sick with no medical services, kept at a distance by other people, and knowing and thinking that people were isolated constantly in order to survive.
Poverty today is comparable to being Jewish during religious pandemics. The news clearly suggests that those suffering the most with disease and hunger, are the poor. All I can imagine are hundreds of thousands of people in the richest country in the world, hanging on to some convent gate looking out and believing that there is no way out.