Across the country, healthcare workers and advocates are brainstorming ways to get the COVID-19 vaccine into the arms of the people who need it most. In Arizona, organizers launched a grassroots effort to vaccinate the state’s Holocaust survivors. An estimated 55 survivors, along with their spouses, partners and caretakers, have been vaccinated through a collaborative program run by the Phoenix Holocaust Association.
KNAU reported on this mission to vaccinate a population that’s survived war, displacement and genocide.
Frieda Allweiss was eight years old when she and her mother fled their home in Poland to escape the Nazis.
“We traveled all the way to Uzbekistan to get away from Hitler,” Allweiss remembers. “Traveled many thousands of miles to get away. And it was not easy, you know.”
Along the way, Allweiss contracted typhus. Now 87, she still vividly remembers the feeling of quarantining alone for a month while she battled the infection. When she eventually came to the United States, Allweiss witnessed the ravages of another deadly disease.
“I remember when my children were growing up and polio was in full swing,” Allweiss says. “And every summer I would worry to death.”
That changed when the first effective polio vaccine was invented — a monumental relief for Allweiss.
“I remember how thrilled we were at the time,” she says.
Allweiss was equally thrilled when it was her turn to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. But booking an appointment online turned out to be difficult and frustrating — an experience many Arizonans recounted, particularly in the early days of the vaccination rollout.
That’s where Sheryl Bronkesh comes in. She’s the director of the Phoenix Holocaust Association, and she quickly realized that survivors like Allweiss needed assistance.
“Most of our survivors are in their 90s. We have a few in their 80s,” Bronkesh says. “I had a call from a survivor who said it was really tough to get an appointment. They finally got an appointment, and it was at three in the morning … and they were a little afraid of driving there.”
Bronkesh reached out to State Rep. Alma Hernandez for help. And it came one afternoon in an email from the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, Dr. Cara Christ.
“And by the time I went to sleep that night, I had gotten a text from somebody on her staff saying they were all scheduled,” Bronkesh adds. “Whoa!”
Bronkesh immediately began arranging rides to a vaccination site in Glendale.
Through her work with the PHA, Bronkesh elevates Holocaust awareness by arranging speaking engagements for survivors at community events and in schools. It’s a powerful experience that’s become increasingly rare as Holocaust survivors age. Allweiss plans to speak of her survival next month.
For Bronkesh, the work is deeply personal. Her parents met in a homeless shelter in Poland after years of surviving war and displacement.
“My father was in the woods hiding for most of the war,” Bronkesh says — he lived as a partisan, a role thousands of Jewish people took on to resist the Nazis.
“My mother said she thought about it every day of her life,” she adds of the Holocaust, “because she lost family.”
There are close to 80 Holocaust survivors living in Arizona, Bronkesh estimates. Most are in Phoenix and Tucson; some are in Prescott and Lake Havasu City. But she wanted to make sure she wasn’t leaving any survivors out of the ongoing vaccination opportunity. She made a call to Dr. Bjorn Krondorfer at Northern Arizona University. There were no survivors currently living in Flagstaff to their knowledge. Still, Krondorfer sees the initiative as a sign of hope.
“To reach out, for this population, is so important. Because the last thing you want is that people who survived the Holocaust to come to the COVID-19 virus and might die from this it would be just horrible,” he says.
Krondorfer directs the Martin-Springer Institute, a think tank at NAU dedicated to studying the Holocaust.
“When you survive a system that wanted nothing but your death, through the most cruel ways,” Krondorfer adds, “any form of reaching out and empathy and support and caring is very much appreciated by the population.”
He says initiatives like this one are vital in advocating for survivors as they carry on the history of the Holocaust. A New York Times report estimates about 350,000 remain in the world today.