A Journal of the Plague Week 47

Monday, February 8th, 2021

I was on a train to London at the start of March last year when I got an urgent email from the Bergen-Belsen Memorial. They had just made the decision to call off their annual commemoration ceremony in a few weeks time due to the coronavirus, and they needed to get a message to the people who had been invited so they could cancel their travel arrangements.

This was a big deal. Last year was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen (and many other concentration camps), and an extensive program of events had been planned in addition to the usual memorial speeches and wreath-laying. Guests had been invited to attend from all over the world, and for many of the elderly survivors, it was the last time they were likely to be able to make the long trip to the former camp, to stand together and remember the past and commemorate the 52,000 people who died there.

I felt shaken as I read the email, knowing how important these anniversary events are and how much work and planning goes into them. My contact at the memorial had sent a statement that needed to be translated into English, and she asked if I could do it right away or recommend someone else who could. The circumstances weren’t ideal; I didn’t have my laptop with me and there was just about half an hour to go before reaching London. But the statement was short and the situation was important to me, so I quickly translated the text in the notes app on my phone and emailed it back. It was the first of several texts I would translate in the coming weeks relating to the canceled memorial ceremony.

I was going to London that day for a symposium organized by the Translators Association of the Society of Authors, which had been scheduled to take place at the start of the London Book Fair. The book fair itself had been canceled just the week before (an extremely big deal in the publishing industry), but the symposium went ahead—though not without some concern on the part of everyone involved. I remember carefully tucking a bottle of hand sanitizer and pack of wet wipes in my bag before setting off that morning, and how everyone in the restrooms at the venue ostentatiously washed their hands for a very long time. There was some nervous acknowledgement of the developing situation at the symposium, but for the most part we all just talked about translation, because that’s what we were there for. At the end of the day, I stood on the train platform at St. Pancras and ate a stodgy Cornish pasty while mildly fretting about how crowded the train might be—not because I was concerned about being close to other people, but because I wanted to make sure I got a seat. It was fine in the end; the train was quiet and I got back to Brighton, got in a cab, and got home. That’s the last time I went anywhere.

The event cancelations were signs, little dominos falling, the news reports you see in the background of a disaster movie before the movie’s protagonists are fully aware of what’s happening. It came as shock to me when Bergen-Belsen canceled its ceremony, but it also made sense; it was unthinkable to have elderly Holocaust survivors boarding flights to Germany to attend crowded events while a dangerous disease was spreading. It made sense for the London Book Fair to be called off as well, just based on the sheer size of the event and the fact that people would be converging from all over the world. But this was still early on in the pandemic, and both of these decisions were made out of an (appropriate) abundance of caution. Somehow it felt like maybe things could still turn around, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.

I got the unsurprising news this week that this year’s anniversary ceremonies for the liberation of the camps would once again be taking place online. The anniversaries for camps like Bergen-Belsen, Neuengamme and Ravensbrück fall in April and May, and it’s clear that the pandemic won’t have abated enough in two to three months time for it to be feasible to hold the events in person. There might still be travel restrictions two months from now, or there might be even more new variants of the virus. There’s no way to safely and confidently plan an international memorial ceremony under these conditions. It will have to wait until next year.

With each year that passes, there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors left, and fewer able to make the journey to the memorials to participate in remembrance events. Some of the survivors who could have made that journey last year wouldn’t have been able to do it this year even if the events were taking place, and by next year the number will be even smaller. In some ways, virtual ceremonies are more inclusive because frail survivors who couldn’t attend an in-person event can still participate online. But there’s no way to replicate the emotion and power of being in a place with other people. We all know this now, of course, more deeply than we ever imagined we would.

The cancelation of the Bergen-Belsen ceremony in 2020 kind of marked the start of the pandemic for me, and the postponement of this year’s ceremonies feels like another milestone. It has hammered home the fact that it’s been a year since everything started. And I’m feeling the full weight of that year in my bones.

The weather was grim last Tuesday, and at 5:30 poor Jeremy had to head out in the dark for a blood donation appointment. I know the blood donation setup is extremely safe, but I was unsettled nonetheless at the thought of him sitting indoors with other people. Obviously everyone wears masks, and the seats are very widely spaced, and no one’s chit-chatting, and the nurses themselves have probably (hopefully) already been vaccinated, so the risk is low. But still, I fretted. And in the hour that Jeremy was away, every single thing I read online seemed to mention someone contracting COVID or recovering from COVID or dying from COVID (including Captain Sir Tom Moore, the centenarian who raised over £30 million for the NHS in the feel-good story of last spring, and who has now succumbed to the coronavirus in the feel-bad story of this one).

Later that night, feeling tired after ballet class and hungry for dinner and rubbed raw by the day and month and year, one little thing set me off and I just…lost it. Our stupid toilet wasn’t flushing properly, and it was like I went into berserker mode. I was in a frenzy of disproportionate fury, and when my cursing rage gave way to exhausted sobbing, Jeremy tried to soothe me by assuring me that we could get the toilet fixed—and in response I blubbered “I know we can get it fixed! But when can my parents get the vaccine?! When can your mom get the vaccine?! How long can this go on?!

(Narrator voice: The toilet wasn’t really the problem after all.)

I have hit the pandemic wall—me and everyone else, apparently. I’ve ostensibly been getting along fine, but it’s possible to both be getting along fine and not be getting along fine at the same time. We’re safe and healthy, things are going well, spring is (eventually) coming—and I also have no reserves left and have been spiraling into anxiety for weeks. I’m playing emotional whack-a-mole, suppressing fear and anger and sadness here only to have it pop up again over there. I rail at inconsequential but tangible things (like household appliances) because the consequential and intangible things are too big and overwhelming and I have no control over them. There’s light at the end of this coronavirus tunnel, but the tunnel has been so long and there’s so much farther to go. So relief mixes with worry, acceptance mixes with discontent, hope mixes with despair.

There’s a line in the novel Railsea by China Miéville that has stuck with me since I read it years ago. The main character has run away, and his companions are reminiscing about him in his absence:

“There were a few laughs. Were they happy or sad that Vurinam had mentioned their runaway? Yes. They were happy or sad.”

It’s an odd construction and it doesn’t really make sense, and yet it also makes total sense to me. Am I happy or sad? Yes. I am happy or sad.

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