Personal Reflections on the Pandemic

PASADENA, California — It’s 3:00 am. I am wide awake looking across my room at a worn-down bulletin board hung up on my wall. It is overflowing with thumbtacked pictures that paint memories of my pre-Covid-19 world. Photos that tell the story of a happy teen who spent her weekends laughing until she cried with close friends at late night sleepovers. They show a budding food critic who ranked the tiramisu at cafes from Rome, across Tuscany, and on to Venice. An adventurous digital storyteller with a notepad and broken pencil stares at me across the dark room as she poses in Guatemala with a former NPR correspondent. I smile back at the carefree girl who just celebrated her Sweet Sixteen with a pink and gold cake on a rooftop terrace. She had no idea it would be the last time she would sit in a restaurant for more than nine months.

I have not posted any photos on that bulletin board since Covid-19 began. Even so, the collection of photos serves as a reminder of what my life used to be and has helped me not lose hope in a time of isolation and darkness.  

I think about how much my life has changed since last March. The holidays are usually the highlight of my year, but, this year, that feeling of warmth, love, and safety is absent. Everyone around me keeps saying to try to find the positives in a world full of negatives. But, what happens when we run out of positives to conjure up?

My friends and I sometimes refer to these past months as being akin to living in a horror movie. We take turns listing the fearful events: the pandemic, the election, the California wildfires, to name a few. The list goes on. At the end, we laugh at the absurdity of the traumas and the drama of it all. It is not the type of laughter you share when someone tells you a funny joke, from seeing a blooper on TV, or from reading a comical Instagram post. It is the kind of laughter that comes sometimes when there is nothing left to do but laugh. You don’t even know why you are laughing, it just comes out. It even feels, well, inappropriate but you do it anyway. I think my friends and I laugh at 2020 because it feels surreal. Maybe laughter is our coping mechanism.  Maybe it’s one way we release all our pent-up emotions and stress. We had never really discussed why.

Recently, I watched an eye-opening documentary called, “Swimming In Auschwitz.” The film follows six female Holocaust survivors, each a former prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The women come from various countries and arrived at the concentration camp from different backgrounds. What’s unique about the film is that it tells the story of what made them laugh during their time in Auschwitz. 

After the screening, I had the opportunity to meet the film’s director, Jon Kean via Zoom and I asked him what he hoped to achieve by the film. He said he wished to show the comedic parts of life in the concentration camps. As someone who is half-Jewish and has met many Holocaust survivors, as well as spent a lot of time learning about and documenting the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, I was shocked and somewhat horrified by his response. When I think of the Holocaust, comedy and laughter, do not play any role in that dark time in our history. Kean told me that he had asked many survivors his question and was attacked for even asking by many for the same reasons I expressed to him. Yet, he explained that the six survivors who answered his question in the film actually remembered and recounted specific times when they laughed at the camps.

For example, they recalled arriving at Auschwitz, being forced to strip in front of Nazi soldiers, get tattooed with a number on their arms, and had all of their hair shaved off. They recalled being given random clothes such as two left shoes, one of their mothers being forced to dress in a sheer outfit and no underwear, another handed a short black dress with ruffles, and that they immediately recognized the absurdity of it all in the midst of the horror. They could no longer recognize one another with shaved heads and odd clothing.  Survivor Erika Jacoby said it was comical and she started to laugh. Others around her began to laugh as well. Jacoby explained that they did not laugh because the situation was humorous but that it released tension and became contagious. The survivors in the documentary all said that laughter was what helped them survive the darkest of times. 

A viral pandemic does not remotely rise to the level of genocide. Our willing confinement in our homes is obviously not comparable to the experiences of Holocaust survivors trapped in Auschwitz. But, the reasons we may laugh in times of desperation sheds light on something fundamental about human nature. We laugh because at times, circumstances are surreal and perhaps all too much to deal with at once. Laughter can be the mind’s natural response to relieve the stress and its contagion, a welcome relief under the most unusual or challenging conditions. 

It’s Thanksgiving time. And we have a lot to be grateful for in our lives, even during this pandemic. If you are healthy, and have a warm, safe, home, with family, friends, and food to eat, we have every reason to be grateful. Remember to be grateful for the lives we get to return to. Pull out your scrapbooks, take another look at your photo-strewn bulletin boards across your bedroom.