Hundreds of Holocaust survivors in Austria and Slovakia got their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine Wednesday, an acknowledgment of past suffering and a tribute to resilience 76 years after Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
More than 400 Austrian survivors, most in their 80s or 90s, were expected to get shots at the convention center in Vienna. Some were brought by shuttle or by ambulance, while others were accompanied by their children. The fittest among them took the subway.
"We owe this to them," said Erika Jakubovits, who organized the capital vaccination drive for the Jewish Community of Vienna. "They have suffered so much trauma and have felt even more insecure during this pandemic."
Jakubovits set up the vaccination drive with support from the Austrian Health Ministry and Vienna city officials. Twelve doctors, all members of the Viennese Jewish community, volunteered to administer shots to older Jews.
While the event took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, vaccinations were not limited to survivors of the Shoah. All Jews in the area older than 85 were eligible to receive them during the special tribute drive.
Some of the 8,000 members of Vienna's Jewish community were vaccinated in December when residents of a Jewish nursing home got their first doses, Jakubovits said.
Over the past month, a majority of the elderly Austrians living in nursing homes have received the first dose of a vaccine against COVID-19, Austrian news agency APA reported.
Earlier this week, the president of the European Jewish Congress, called on all countries in the European Union to ensure that Holocaust survivors have access to coronavirus vaccines as quickly as possible.
More than 6 million European Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Third Reich. The EJC estimates that today only about 20,000 Holocaust survivors still live in the European Union.
"Throughout their lives, they have shown mighty strength of spirit, but in the current crisis, many have sadly died alone and in pain, or are now fighting for their lives, and many others are suffering from extreme isolation," European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor said. "We have a duty to survivors, to ensure that they are able to live their last years in dignity, without fear, and in the company of their loved ones."
Vaccination efforts across the EU's 27 nations have been off to a slow start with not enough doses available, leading to wide criticism of officials.
In a similar project to that in Vienna, the Jewish community of Bratislava in Slovakia also vaccinated Holocaust survivors on Wednesday.
"We're very, very grateful that the vaccinations are taking place on this symbolic day," said Tomas Stern, the head of the Jewish community in Bratislava.
Some 128 survivors were to receive their first shot at Bratislava's Jewish community center on Wednesday and another 330 across Slovakia in the coming days.
In Israel, home to many Holocaust survivors, more than 80% of those over age 70 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 60% have received the second dose. Because Israel's vaccination campaign has moved so quickly, officials said there was no need to single out Holocaust survivors.
Still, about 900 Holocaust survivors died of COVID-19 in Israel last year before vaccines were available and about 5,300 survivors were infected, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
The vast majority of those killed in the Auschwitz death camp were Jews from across Europe, but other non-Jewish prisoners, including Poles, Roma and Soviet soldiers were also among the victims.
About 192,000 Jews lived in Austria before World War II. After the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, which was enthusiastically supported by many Austrians, more than 100,000 Jews fled the country. Tens of thousands were murdered in death camps.
With World War II having ended more than three-quarters of a century ago, the world's approximately 240,000 Holocaust survivors are all elderly. Since many were deprived of proper nutrition when they were young, they suffer from numerous medical issues today.
In addition, many live isolated lives, having lost their entire families and also have psychological stresses because of their persecution under the Nazis.
None of those receiving the shots in Vienna wanted to be interviewed by reporters, a fact Jakubovits attributed to persistent anxiety among Holocaust survivors.
"People are afraid that they could be recognized," she said. "We know we're living in a time where anti-Semitism is rising. So people are much more careful what they do."