Surviving the Shoah and its impact on human survival today
By David E. kaplan
Interviewed from the USA on Israel’s Channel 12, only a few days before Holocaust Memorial Day on the 27 January 2022, this year’s Genesis Prize recipient – dubbed Israel’s “Jewish Nobel” -gave an answer to a particular question that was touchingly telling.
Dr. Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, was asked whether – because of Covid – he would be travelling to Israel to accept his $1 million prize from President Isaac Herzog at a ceremony in Jerusalem to be held on June 29, to which he replied with an engaging smile:
“Well, there is the incentive for me to work even harder.”
And work hard he has.
Not only has the Pfizer vaccine protected tens of millions of people around the world and prevented even more, from suffering severe illness or even death from the coronavirus infection, it may have also saved the global economy.
The Pfizer CEO took over at the 173-year-old pharma giant just a year before the pandemic when the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 surfaced. When Bourla was confronted about taking on the world-crippling coronavirus, there wasn’t the vaccine technology yet for the job that lay ahead, but he trusted his scientists.
It was here that Israel’s Genesis committee recognized Dr. Bourla for his “leadership, determination, and especially for his willingness to assume great risks”. Unlike CEOs of most other major companies working on developing COVID-19 vaccines, Dr. Bourla declined billions of dollars in US federal subsidies in order to avoid government bureaucracy and expedite development and production of the vaccine. As a result, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was ready in record time – MONTHS instead of YEARS!
However, let us remember that if Hitler had his diabolical way, the health of the world today would not be so secure.
Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, Dr. Bourla was raised in a family that faced the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand. His parents were among only 2,000 survivors out of a once-thriving, ancient Jewish community of 50,000, almost completely wiped out by the Nazis.
A year ago on January 27th for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Dr. Bourla joined the Sephardic Heritage International where he shared his Greek Sephardic family’s story of tragedy and survival.
“My father’s family, like so many others, had been forced from their homes and taken to a crowded house within one of the Jewish ghettos. It was a house they had to share with several other Jewish families. They could circulate in and out of the ghetto as long as they were wearing the yellow star.
But one day in March 1943, the ghetto was surrounded by occupational forces and the exit was blocked. My father and his brother (my uncle) were outside when it happened. Their father (my grandfather) met them outside, told them what was happening and asked them to leave the ghetto and hide because he had to go back inside as his wife and two other children were home. So later that day, my grandfather, Abraham Bourla, his wife Rachel, his daughter Graziella and his youngest son David were taken to a camp outside the train station and from there, left for Auschwitz. My father and uncle never saw them again.”
He explained how his father and uncle were able to escape to Athens. Thanks to local police who were helping Jews escape from the Nazis, they were able to obtain fake IDs with Christian names.
“When the Germans had left, they went back to Thessaloniki and found that all of their property and belongings had been stolen or sold. With nothing to their name, they started from scratch, becoming partners at a successful liquor business that they ran together until they both retired.”
Then followed Bourla relating the harrowing story of his mother who was also saved in miraculous circumstances.
So well-known in the town, she was afraid to venture outside her house for fear of being recognized on the street and turned over to the Germans. She essentially stayed at home “24 hours a day“, said Bourla.
However, on one of her rare ventures outside, she was recognised and forcibly escorted to a local prison.
“My Christian uncle, my mother’s brother-in-law, Costas de Madis approached a Nazi official and paid him a ransom in exchange for a promise that my mother would be spared.
However, my mother’s sister, my aunt, didn’t trust the Germans. So she would go to the prison every day at noon to watch as they loaded the truck of prisoners. One day, her fear had been realised, and my mom was put on the truck. She ran home and told her husband, who then called the Nazi official and reminded him of their agreement – who said he would look into it. That night was the longest night in my aunt and uncle’s life because they knew that next morning, my Mom would likely be executed.
The next day, my Mom was lined up with other prisoners against a brick wall. And moments before she would have been executed, a German soldier on a motorcycle arrived and handed some papers to the men in charge of the firing squad. They removed my mother from the line. As they rode away, my Mom could hear the machine gun slaughtering those that were left behind. Two or three days later, she was released from prison after the Germans left Greece.”
Eight years after narrowly escaping death, Bourla’s parents met by way of matchmaking and were married.
“My father had two dreams – one, that I would become a scientist and two, that I would marry a nice Jewish girl. I’m happy to say he lived long enough to see both dreams come true.”
Afraim Katzir, Director of the Sephardic Heritage International, said at the time that “It is very inspiring that it is the son of Holocaust survivors who is on the front line of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.”
A year and more variants of covid later, the Genesis committee recognised the role of Bourla in leading the development of a COVID-19 vaccine and will be awarding him $1 million in prize money.
And what does Bourla intend to do with this money? He is donating it to projects aimed at preserving the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, with a particular emphasis on the tragedy suffered by the Greek Jewish community.
In welcoming Dr. Albert Bourla to the distinguished family of Genesis Prize Laureates, Co-Founder and Chairman of The Genesis Prize Foundation Stan Polovets said that:
“Dr. Bourla personifies two of the most fundamental Jewish values: the commitment to the sanctity of life and to repairing the world. And while the pandemic is far from over, millions of people are alive and healthy because of what Dr. Bourla and his team at Pfizer have accomplished.”
So while Dr. Bourla is praised for his services in fighting Corona, 2021 was recorded at the most antisemitic year in the last decade, fueled by the very pandemic he was fighting against. Even in in his native Greece, which should have taken pride in Bourla’s achievements, there were those in media that instead perverted the facts in order to fuel antisemitism.
There was Bourla educated at the university in Salonika and who after graduation joined Pfizer in Greece to begin his steady climb through the executive ranks of the multinational corporation and is generally credited with driving the company to develop the two-shot COVID vaccine in record time, and what do they do?
Following in November 2020 the welcome announcement by Pfiser of promising results in clinical trials, Greece’s Makeleio newspaper claimed that “Bourla is evil” and the vaccine that “Pfizer is working on is actually deadly.” The paper juxtaposed a photograph of Bourla with that of Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele, who conducted gruesome experiments on Jewish prisoners. Albert Bourla wants to “stick the needle” into Greeks, delivering what the paper described as “poison” in the guise of a vaccine.
Despite some criticism from the Greek Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs calling it “most vile anti-Semitism reminiscent of the Middle Ages”, the unrepentant newspaper responded by publishing another hate-filled article three days later, describing Bourla as a “Greek Jew” who was under the control of a sinister-sounding “Israel Council”.
In its annual report on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day 2021, Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry found that antisemitic conspiracy theories blossomed as soon as the coronavirus began spreading around the world in February 2020.
According to its report, the false theories circulating went on the lines as follows:
Jews and Israelis created and spread the virus so that they could rescue the world with lucrative vaccines.
The report said:
“The advent of the vaccines, coupled with Israel’s vast vaccination campaign, assisted by Israelis and Jews who hold prominent positions in the companies that produce these vaccines (such as Tal Zaks, Chief Medical Officer at Moderna, and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla), was used to reinforce these accusations: Israelis and Jews join hands so that Israel may be the first to recover from the pandemic, while the rest of the world stands in line and begs the Jews for help.”
Contrast the hate of the antisemites with the words of the Genesis Prize recipient, which explains not only Jewish survival but why an unappreciated world is forever enriched by Jewish survival:
“I was brought up in a Jewish family who believed that each of us is only as strong as the bonds of our community; and that we are all called upon by God to repair the world. I look forward to being in Jerusalem to accept this honour in person, which symbolizes the triumph of science and a great hope for our future.”
Watch the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s global program, in partnership with The King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence, featuring leaders and peacemakers from the Gulf, Indonesia, Israel, and the United States, commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
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