Mr. Alan Zimm died a few days ago of Covid-19 at the age of 97. I first met Mr. Zimm in 2007 when I organized a Holocaust Remembrance Day for my high school students at the school in which I taught. He sat on the stage next to his wife and his sister-in-law, and told his story as a witness and survivor of the worst moments of his life to hundreds of teenagers that day. He spent a lot of his time during his lifetime speaking in front of people in order to try and convince them that love and hope are what makes us human. He turned an inhumane experience filled with horror into an unforgettable lesson for my students about empathy and humanity. He effected thousands of young people in the community in which he lived.
It is with great sadness that I have thought about these thousands of people that had the opportunity to learn from Mr. Zimm and how many of them would have filled the synagogue with their love at his funeral on Monday. Instead, his death was lonely. His funeral and burial were empty of mourners. Even though Mr. Zimm’s life was extraordinary, his death was much like the thousands who have died from COVID-19, in the past few weeks. He undeservedly died alone.
My mother knew Mr. Zimm very well. She was the Education Director at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, VA and I have been lucky enough to hear her teach many times to students and adults about the Holocaust. Before she speaks of the history and the events of the genocide, she takes out a large bowl full of paper clips. She asks her students to hold one of them.” There are 1,000 paper clips in this bowl. Each of these paper clips represents 3000 children. Each of these children was murdered during the Holocaust.”she tells everyone. Its important that she uses this analogy, because it is essential that people understand that the victim statistics of a genocide represent real, live people. Each of my mother’s students can put their hands inside the bowl and feel the paper clips sliding through their fingers and begin to understand that the numbers in textbooks and on websites, are people. Touching 1 paper clip of the thousand in the bowl, is like honoring three thousand children that were killed before they were able to grow up. Each child had parents and grandparents and siblings. Each child loved to draw or play soccer or build with blocks. Each child held the potential and hope for their families.
Each of the 9 million who were murdered in the Holocaust was a person. Mr. Zimm lost seven siblings and his parents to genocide and yet he told his individual story of pain and horror to hundreds of people because his experience didn’t break him. One of the stories that he told, was of his time as a slave laborer in a rocket factory. Mr. Zimm said that his life was saved by a German engineer who left sandwiches in his desk drawer for Mr. Zimm to find. This brave stranger saved Mr. Zimm from starving to death. The story was about one human, recognizing the humanity in another. It was a story that we all can learn from. His full life was one of bravery and luck, of hope and love. He married a fellow survivor and was married for 70 years. He had children and great-grandchildren and he was a tailor and small business owner, retiring at the age of 97. Mr. Zimm was one individual who died of Covid-19. He died alone and his family and community lost the chance to officially celebrate his extraordinary life.
Today, despite the danger to their communities, hundreds of people are standing together at the state capital of Virginia to protest what they feel is their loss of liberty due to the Covid-19 social distancing and business closures. These protesters are angry because they believe in the central idea of our American mythology, that the individual is of upmost importance. They are protesting the loss of their individual happiness. We have all grown up learning and believing that Americans can become “self-made” men. Our myth of individual ladder-climbing, boot straps, and sweat-equity has consistently led Americans to rationalize racism, antisemitism, prejudice, and poverty. It has led us to uphold housing and health discrimination, over-policing and mass-incarceration that decimate our communities of color. Mythic individualism has increased gun sales as each school shooting occurs and has caused opportunity hoarding and the massive funding starvation of public schools. Although this myth of heroic individuality usually simmers beneath the surface, invisible to the privileged, the virus has exposed the terrifying and destructive nature of our belief that each of us deserves more than anyone else.
In these horrible times, we need to reject the myth of heroic individuality and its ability to dehumanize our thoughts. Instead, we need “heroic community”. We need to recognize and honor the humanity in each of us. Protesters and politicians are preaching that such a small percentage of Americans are dying, that the risk to open up business is worth it. People are valuing economic growth, and frankly the desire to get their hair cut and go to the gym, over the lives of human beings. Such a small percentage of deaths…I don’t want to compare the virus to the Holocaust, obviously, but we need a jolt before its too late. We are abandoning the idea that each single death that raises the death count each day was a person, just like each of those paper clips; just like Mr. Zimm. Although we are sure that we deserve to reclaim our liberty, we can’t seem to understand that each percentage point that we are belittling in the process, is one of us. These protesters are defending their rights as individuals by refusing to recognize the individuality of each victim of the virus.
What separates me or you from the people who are dying? Luck? The color of our skin? The fact that we have healthcare? The ability to be able to stay home if we need to? Each person that gets sick is essential to our community. We need to fight for our common humanity, not abandon the most vulnerable of our communities. We must abandon our false belief that our lives are worth more than our neighbor’s. We are all connected despite our differences of opportunities and experiences. No matter how much we have distanced ourselves from each other in the past, it is crucial that we become a community who fends for each other. We don’t have to like each other to fight for our right to exist. Our individual life, the people whom we love, the causes that we fight for, our very existence depends on staying home and decreasing the spread of this virus. Perhaps if we begin to understand the worth of each person during this unusual time, we can treat each other as humans rather than numbers. Our country could become what it strives to be. We are not numbers, we are people and we need each other. The myth of heroic individuality has done enough damage. It is time for heroic empathy. In honor of Mr. Zimm and the thousands that have lost their lives, let us use our collective power to change our narrative.