Heroes of the pandemic: Toronto-raised granddaughter of Holocaust survivors cared for Israel’s first victim of COVID-19

Gemara always knew she wanted to be a nurse. As a kid watching old hospital dramas, like ER, it was clear to her that the nurses were the ones with the coolest jobs

Rachel Gemara grew up listening to her grandparents’ stories of the Holocaust. All four grandparents are alive today, and each survived a monstrous time by luck, fate, perseverance, accidents of timing and simple acts of grace. Gemara’s maternal grandmother, Miriam, was in Auschwitz; a girl, barely in her teens, separated from her parents and terrified of what might come next.

“My grandmother tells the story of how her father was able to throw her a note,” Gemara says. “The message was that she had to survive — for the family — that she was the light. She told me how that helped give her the will to survive. My grandparents’ stories of the human spirit were an important part of how I grew up.”

Gemara is a 33-year-old oncology nurse in Jerusalem. She spent her formative years in Toronto, though, where her parents, Rabbi Shlomo Gemara, and his wife, Ofra, both veteran educators, still live. On March 14 their daughter embarked on a new job she had volunteered for, as a nurse in a pop-up coronavirus unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Centre in northwest Jerusalem.

Arie Even, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, was among Gemara’s first patients. He was a widower who loved classical music, Hungarian cooking, historical books and socializing with friends. He had four children, 18 grandchildren and a great grandchild. He walked with a cane, and he understood the implications of a COVID-19 diagnosis for someone his age, but he exuded a sweetness, nonetheless, that drew people to him, including his nurse.

“I connected with Arie Even right away,” Gemara said one night in May after finishing a shift. “He was originally from Hungary, like my grandparents, and I felt as though he could have been one of them, were they to get sick with this terrible virus.”

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