Dating : Love in the Time of Corona

h2>Dating : Love in the Time of Corona

Elisa Hategan

“The opposite of love is not hate — it’s indifference,” Elie Wiesel told an interviewer soon after winning the Nobel peace prize in 1986, the year I turned eleven and emigrated to Canada from communist Romania. Three decades later and in the throes of a global health crisis, Wiesel’s survival, more than ever, bears testament that hope can rise out of the flames of hatred.

When he was fifteen years old, Wiesel and his family were deported to Auschwitz, where his mother and younger sister were massacred. Within a year he was transferred to Buchenwald, where his father perished shortly before the camp was liberated. Despite unimaginable trauma, Wiesel’s strength of spirit proves that it is possible for positive change to emerge from suffering.

Often it’s not the tragedy itself but how we respond to it that defines who we are as human beings. Tragedy has the power to unify us or tear us apart, its transformative power resting in the fact that it is only when wartime, terrorism or a global health crisis pushes us to the brink, that we discover what we’re really made of.

Back in the sixties, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a five-stage model of death and dying that ranges from denial to acceptance. With COVID-19 now ravaging communities, forcing us to be caged inside an unprecedented quarantine, many are unable to cope and get stuck in the first two stages, denial and anger. As the death toll rises, so do the bigoted and racist attacks; as countries shut their borders, so does the call of nationalism ring louder.

It’s at times like these that you can count on snake oil salesmen seizing the opportunity to sell false remedies and propaganda as inoculation against fear. When you feel helpless, confronted with your mortality and powerless to prevent your loved ones from falling ill, reaching for conspiracy theories can make you feel like you are in control, armed with a secret knowledge that will keep you immune by equipping you with the ability to convert anxiety into anger and pinpoint exactly who is to blame.

Conspiracy theories are counterfeit vaccines that transform fear into hate, allowing the believer to sleep easier at night, secure in the knowledge that the pandemic is a hoax and life as we know it hasn’t really changed. Overwhelmed with uncertainty, some find it easier to view this pandemic as a battle of us versus them, and deny the humanity in others rather than acknowledge that we’re all in this together. The haters are the ones most scared, and that’s because hate stems from fear.

Me as the 17-year old poster girl of the neo-Nazi Heritage Front, speaking to a crowd of white supremacists

Nobody knows this better than me. At age sixteen I was recruited by the Heritage Front, Canada’s then-largest white supremacist group, and groomed to become its poster girl. I was indoctrinated into neo-Nazi conspiracy theories by notorious Holocaust revisionist Ernst Zundel, who became a grandfatherly figure and welcomed me into his home when I sought refuge from my abusive family. I spent two years believing the world was controlled by a shadowy, Illuminati-like cabal (the Zionist Occupation Government) intent on exterminating the white race, before the reality of violence made me defect from my adopted “family”, provide police with information, and testify against group leaders in a trial that resulted in convictions, jailtime, and contributed to shutting down the group.

After my defection I lived on the run, swapping cities as often as I did aliases. During the years I spent in hiding I felt broken, unable to forgive myself or figure out if I could ever have a normal life. I didn’t even know what “normal” meant. Back in Romania, both my parents had suffered terrible cruelty in their formative years; life under a repressive communist regime only exacerbated their hate of each other.

My deaf father, who died two years after we emigrated, clawed his way up from being called the village idiot in his Transylvanian village to becoming a successful painter and the president of the Romanian Deaf Association. As a child, my deaf mother was forced to sleep in a barn and herd goats; after being raped at age twelve by village boys, she was shipped off to a state boarding school for deaf girls where she eventually met my father. Embittered by the knowledge that they would never get justice, my parents regularly expressed their pain with their fists.

What my parents taught me, most of all, is that when life as you know it has been upended — when survival itself comes into question — there’s no telling what you might do. You can choose brutality, like my father did after he denied his Jewish heritage and allowed his broken dreams to turn into rage. You can lie down and wish for death, like I did so many times, or transform yourself into the enemy — a half-Jewish girl who became a neo-Nazi, a vengeful Athena instead of the wounded little girl I saw when I looked in the mirror.

Or you can choose love. When caught in the bitterest winter, you can search deep within yourself for that which French philosopher Albert Camus called “an invincible summer”. But how do you love, after everything you took for granted is stripped away? How can you trust that spring will still bloom?

How do you fight against the pervasive indifference and polarization that has turned white nationalism into a counterculture? How do you cope when your synagogue’s virtual Shabbat gets “zoom-bombed” by antisemites, like mine was? How do you fight the numbness, the hopelessness, the impulse to attack back?

Those who came before us endured compulsory drafts, their friends dying on the battlefield, the Holocaust — but until COVID-19, my generation never faced death up close. We haven’t faced death together and I don’t think we learned how to live, either.

Me today, working in my Jewish community — speaking and presenting seminars and educational workshops about antisemitism, white supremacy and radicalization

I believe that to survive, you must love. You must create, in whatever capacity you can — a poem, a painting, a kinder world — where the act of creation itself becomes a tool of survival. If teenage Wiesel could survive the horror of his entire family being exterminated, surely we can manage to get through a stay-home order. The sacrifice we’re called to make isn’t to fight the enemy in a blood-splattered trench, but to allow ourselves this gift of time at home with our loved ones. Time to love, to grow, to create.

“In Hebrew, the words for create (briyah) and health (briut) are similar. Use your pain to create,” are words spoken by Sherri Mandell, the mother of Koby, the American-Israeli thirteen-year old boy who was murdered by Arab terrorists outside a West Bank settlement.

We can use this time to battle everyone around us, flailing desperately against what we cannot control, or we can use it to self-reflect and discover the seeds of our resilience — an epigenetic resilience intertwined in our DNA like dried flowers pressed in the folds of secret love letters. The voices of all who came before us, whose blood flows in our veins. We are the descendants of those who survived.

It is up to us to determine what our future will look like after we emerge out of this period of darkness. We can cling to the familiar and return to a postmodern culture of cynicism, where idealism and hope fall prey to apathy and endless snark, or we can use this precious gift of time to dig deep within ourselves and create a more compassionate society that nurtures the humanity within us all.

Me in Tel Aviv, looking at the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea

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