Paris – Seventy-five years since the end of World War II in Europe, the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking economic and social havoc on a scale often described as the worst global crisis since 1945.
People in five countries — Russia, Israel, England, France and Germany — who survived the upheaval of the 1940s gave AFP their take on what is happening today.
– Lutz Rackow, 88, Germany –
Rackow still lives in the house in southeast Berlin where he was growing up during the war. For him, the current situation is completely different.
“It’s just another complicated international situation — but a completely different context,” he said. “It was a total emergency situation” in 1945.
“There was only one issue in our private lives: getting food. Every child received a meal at school so that they could eat at least once a day. But other than that, provisions were very poor.
“We also had no heating and experienced terrible cold. There were two winters when the Spree (river) froze through to half a metre (1.6 feet) deep and we had temperatures of minus 25 degrees (minus 13 Fahrenheit).”
At the age of 18, Rackow started working for a liberal newspaper in Berlin.
“When I took the train to work, about a 15-minute journey, I saw maybe three functional houses on the way. Everything else was completely destroyed,” he said.
Today, as half of humanity sits in some form of lockdown, Rackow can enjoy relaxing with his wife in their sprawling garden leading down to the Mueggelsee lake, while his two daughters both have steady jobs and are able to work from home.
“It’s easy for us here to keep our distance,” he says. “We’re in a privileged situation.”
– Joan Hall, 95, England –
Hall lived with her parents in Birmingham at the start of the war. She joined the Women’s Royal Air Force at just 17 and served for four years, mainly in the officers’ canteen.
“During the war, you could get out and have a drink, have a meal. Now, with the virus, you can’t go anywhere,” she said.
“This virus, it makes you a prisoner in your own home, more or less. The main difference is the freedom. And speaking for myself, I would prefer the war years than I would this virus.”
She also sees similarities.
“When the war was on, everybody was very friendly, worked together, pulled together. And now, you know, with this virus going on, it seems to me that it is bringing the people back together. Now neighbours knock on your door and ask if you need help.
“They go out to help you with your shopping and this seems to be a more communal spirit, like it was in the war.”
Unable to receive visits from her 70-year-old son, Hall spends her time at home in Fairford, near Oxford, working in the garden and talking on the telephone with friends.
– Elena Mironova, 92, Russia –
A widow of two years, Mironova is riding out the lockdown in her apartment, southwest of Moscow. She speaks by telephone every day with her two daughters and grandsons who live nearby.
For her, comparing the epidemic lockdown to the experience of WWII is problematic.
“During the war, the USSR lost 28 million people,” she said, adding that the economic devastation was “also incomparable to the effects of the pandemic.”
After the war, Mironova lived with her husband Viktor in a small apartment in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg).
“The first winter after the war we never had enough paraffin and sometimes we had just a little flour and sunflower oil for a week. I spent my time standing in queues (for food),” she recalled.
But there were brief moments of diversion as well: visits to the museum, cinema or theatre, activities which are now off-limits.
– Robert Wolff, 94, Israel –
“The comparison is ridiculous,” said Wolff, a French-born nonagenarian who lives with his wife and daughter in Jerusalem.
At 17, he had left his parents’ home in Limoges in central France to join the resistance at Ain in the country’s east, where he was arrested but managed to escape.
He returned to Limoges after the war and worked for the United States army as a radio repairman.
“We were starving at the time and it was complete misery. Jews were being deported right up to liberation — how can it be compared (to the pandemic)?” he said.
Today, “we have books, television, I cannot complain”.
After the war ended, times were tough for a while still, with food rationing and a volatile atmosphere.
“I remember seeing the savagery of people when the (Nazi) collaborators were found and lynched, sometimes without trial,” Wolff said.
– Gabrielle Magnol, 93, France –
Confined in Saint-Pardoux-la-Riviere in the Perigord region of southwest France, Magnol sees only her physiotherapist, doctor and household aides.
She remembers the end of the war as a joyful period.
“We were crazy with joy. We could go dancing and at 17 we dreamt of nothing else,” she said. “I danced for three nights straight, I went through three pairs of shoes.”
But after the joy, there were the food stamps.
“It was no fun, we were allowed only so much butter, so much sugar from the shop,” she said.
“To live, one needs more than sugar and fat — in the clothing and shoe stores there was practically nothing.”
In one major difference, there was no run on supplies once stores reopened after the war, Magnol recalled.
“Now, in the shops, people rush in because they fear they will not have enough tomorrow. We experienced real shortages.”
In a wheelchair today, the former hairdresser admits she is fearful of the virus, but feels it is nothing compared to the threats of war.
“The occupation and confinement have nothing in common: we feared for our lives and we were starving!”
By AFP bureaus