Holocaust survivor Leonie Bergman was vaccinated thanks to a city partnership with local Jewish organizations. Photo: Walter Mitchell

WEST RIDGE — After months of isolation and feeling uncertain about the future, 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Leonie Bergman has hope that she’ll soon be able to see her friends and family again.

Her newfound positivity and relief come from her first dose of the COVID vaccine on March 7. In a few weeks, she will get her second Moderna shot. 

Then, she plans to call her friends and see them for the first time since October. 

“It’s been a long time and I don’t go anywhere because I don’t want to expose myself,” Bergman said, who only sees her caregiver and maybe her neighbors in the elevator of her building. “But with this year being the new year, you are supposed to have hope and I do have hope so I am happy about that.” 

Bergman is one of more than 130 Holocaust survivors in the Chicago area who have been vaccinated under the city’s 1B group, thanks to a partnership with Jewish organizations Agudath Israel of Illinois, Hatzalah Chicago and The Chicago Center Refuah 311. 

Since the beginning of the month, the group has hosted vaccination clinics twice a week in a West Ridge elementary school gym and made extra efforts to ensure there was sufficient city vaccines for all Holocaust survivors. Other seniors, teachers, health care providers, caregivers and more who qualify have also been vaccinated at the gym.

“I felt relief that I finally got my first dose,” Bergman said. “It made me feel part of the world again.”

Many who got vaccinated, like Bergman, were referred by the Holocaust Community Services program of CJE SeniorLife, which reached out to hundreds of survivors with assistance from the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. 

“It is so important to protect these community members who have survived so much in their lives only to face a new threat from the pandemic,” Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, director of Government Affairs for Agudath Israel of Illinois said in a press release. “We hear the stories of seniors who have been confined to their homes, unable to spend time with their families. Now, after more than a year, some will be able to celebrate the Passover Seder in person with their loved ones.”

This opportunity shows a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel for many survivors, especially those who live alone and have been isolated for more than a year — similar to the feeling of waiting out persecution and living with uncertainty, as Bergman experienced when she was 7 years old during the Nazi occupation. 

“I was moved around and moved around so many times that I never knew who was leading me,” she recalled of her Holocaust experience. “There was more uncertainty coming to the US. I guess you could say uncertainty has followed me. That’s one of my middle names.”

Bergman, who lives in Skokie and used to work at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center prior to the pandemic, was born in Berlin, Germany but moved to Brussels, Belgium in 1938. After the Nazi occupation of Belgium during World War II, she went into hiding and was placed in a convent. After moving around to different hiding spots with her sister, she settled in one spot for three years until the war was over. 

Their parents were deported to Auschwitz in July 1944, just two months before Belgium was liberated. 

The sisters survived and came to the US in 1946 to live with an uncle in New York. Three years later, Bergman moved to Chicago and attended Nicholas Senn High School before going to college at Northeastern Illinois University. 

She said the pandemic has taught her not to dwell on fear and accept life as it is, but is happy to slowly reenter the world and feel more protected against the virus with the vaccine. She hopes others can soon feel the sense of hope that’s spreading around the city as more Chicagoans get vaccinated and coronavirus cases go down. 

“I’m prized that I am part of the positive, forward-looking group of people and that things will be better for everyone, especially for younger generations,” she said. “Sometimes, some of us older ones say we have lived our lives —  it’s your turn to look forward to something good.” 

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