Through the Museum of Tolerance of Los Angeles, Holocaust survivor Betty Cohen has been telling her story multiple times to different people at various places. But what’s constant is the horror. Like a magmatic rock, the atrocious events of the Nazi genocide has solidified and survivors like Cohen carry the weight throughout their life.
The sharp and energetic 96-year-old Jewish woman who survived life at the Birkenau concentration camp was invited to talk to students via Skype on May 11 by PCC English professor Dustin Hanvey.
“Trying to get your head around an event as the Holocaust is extremely difficult,” Hanvey said. “Humans are capable of something like this and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Hanvey likes to set ambitious goals. He managed to travel to Washington D.C. with 67 PCC students to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum during this year’s spring break, and is now planning a trip to Auschwitz with four or five students at his own expenses
“I want to be reminded of what we are fighting to avoid in our future,” Hanvey said.
When Cohen’s face appeared on a big screen connected through Skype, students on campus seemed ready to listen from their classroom in the C-building.
Once more, she told the story of how, at 23, the Nazi stripped her not only of her clothing but of her dignity as she arrived at the concentration camp in Birkenau. She related how she had to walk for days in a senseless march before being liberated. And of how, still today, she wonders how she survived all this.
This is her story.
Betty Cohen was living in Hilversum when the German Nazis ordered the Dutch Jews to relocate to Amsterdam in 1942. By then she she was engaged to Al Cohen, who she met in May of 1940 a few days before Germany attacked Holland, and she had lost her job at a department store because of anti-Semitic laws.
“Jews just weren’t allowed to do things,” Cohen said. “We couldn’t go to the gym, to the pool and we couldn’t go to the movies. There was absolutely nothing to do for the Jews. And there was a curfew, we had to stay inside the house. No Jews outside. Children couldn’t go to school anymore.”
After some time in Amsterdam, her father brought his family back to Hilversum and planned to take them to Switzerland, a neutral country that had opened its doors to anyone who was able to travel there.
In Hilversum, she lived in a small cottage with her parents, grandmother, Al and his family plus other people they didn’t know. It was owned by a man in the resistance who offered shelter to Jews.
They lived there for two years, hiding.
“It was horrible,” Cohen said. “We were fighting all the time and whispering because the walls were thin and we didn’t want to be heard. Can you imagine? Whispering while fighting? Horrible, especially when the food came in the morning.”
When the Nazis broke down their front door it was April 1944 and 17 Jews were dragged out of their cottage.
“Neighbors were screaming because they didn’t know there were so many people in that place and we were crying,” Cohen said. “Seventeen people living in that small place and nobody knew about it.”
They were transported to Westerbork, a transit camp in the Netherlands where Nazis were holding Dutch Jew prisoners before deporting them to the concentration camps in Poland.
On May 19 of 1944, she and her family, along with with Al and his family, were transported by cattle car (a train usually used to transport livestock) to Birkenau, a concentration camp used as a killing center. According to the Holocaust Museum, 175,000 Jews were gassed to death here between January 1942 and March 1943.
It was upon arrival that her father told the family they might never see each other again.
“We were crying, there was a lot of commotion. You had to go down a ramp and then a Nazi officer was separating people,” Cohen said. “The old people, children and people that couldn’t walk so good were sent to the left side.”
She was put with the able women, with Al’s sister Elizabeth
“We came to a door,” Cohen said. “They opened it and they took us to take a shower.”
She remembers the terror of wondering if she was being sent to wash herself or to die, as she had heard from other prisoners that sometimes gas was coming out of the metal tubes instead of water.
“Elizabeth and I were just held to each other because we didn’t know,” Cohen said. “Then water did come out.”
Other paradoxical measures were taken to clean up prisoners in a place built to exterminate them. Their bodies were disinfected and their head shaved.
Finally they were taken to another room.
“There we lost our identity,” Cohen said. “They tattooed us with a number and sent us to our barracks.”
The camp of Birkenau, built by the Nazis near Oswiecim, a Polish city, was very big and held over 90 thousand prisoners that year.
“I walked outside that first night and felt the shock of my life. I saw fire and a guard said if you came with your family say goodbye because they were sent to the gas chamber and now they are being cremated,” Cohen said. “Of course I broke down.”
While it seems impossible to relate to such an absurd scenario of atrocities, Cohen graciously showed the audience the tattoo Nazi marked on her left forearm. As inconceivable as it was, the audience kept listening to practical details of twelve months spent at the mercy of officers who daily decided if a person was worth living or not based on unintelligible criteria.
“Every morning the [Nazi officers] would just pick randomly 50 of us and send them to the crematorium,” Cohen said. “It was very scary.”
Then there was the time she had been selected to get sterilized, so that Jewish women wouldn’t have children. But that didn’t work, and she later had a son and a daughter with whom she now lives with in Los Angeles.
“They failed,” Hanvey said. “Their mission failed. That’s kind of a nice little finger to the Nazis.”
With the Soviet forces approaching, SS chief Heinrich Himmler started ordering to evacuate the prisoners from all concentration camps and most of the brutal marches took place in the winter of 1945.
Cohen marched in the snow for days fearing of being shot if she slowed down and she recalls the importance of sticking together with seven other Dutch women. After a few days, they were taken by train to Ravensbrück.
“It was a horrible camp, you can Google it,” Cohen said. “People were dying, there was no food. It was very crowded, and we were not allowed to go outside. But we were still together [with the seven women] trying to talk to each other.”
All along while telling her story to the PCC students, Cohen almost never used the pronoun “I”. It was always “us”, the prisoners, underlying the importance of validating each other’s existence, against them, “the Nazis”, dehumanizing and isolating their victims.
After a month in Ravensbrück, the group of women were taken by train to another camp—Parchim, in Germany.
“It was on April 9,” Cohen said. “It was Al’s birthday and I didn’t know if he was alive.”
On May 4 of 1945 they were forced to march again but after few days, when they woke up from sleeping in a field, the guards and their dogs were gone.
“There was nobody to tell us what to do. We were free,” Cohen said.
They walked to a farmhouse and slept in the barn. The day after the Russians arrived, and they told the farmer to let the women take all the rooms to get some rest.
“But we didn’t want to get separated, we still wanted to stay together in one room,” Cohen added.
When the German armed forces surrendered a few days later, Cohen decided to go back to Hilversum where she learned that only a few people in her family had survived. She went to live with her aunt.
“When I arrived to her house she hugged me and she would hurt me because I was so skinny,” Cohen said. “I was only 67 pounds, [I] had lost so much weight.”
But there was very good news too: Al was alive.
The couple got married and moved to the United States taking along Al’s sister’s son, Louis, who had lost both of his parents. After living in New Jersey and Atlanta, and after having two babies of their own, they moved to Los Angeles.
“We need to hear the small bits of joy that came out of such great horror,” Hanvey said. “Even though nine million people didn’t have that opportunity, at least some survival took place.”
The students took their time when she finished talking to exit the room, mingling and digesting the story.
“Knowing how positive and how stable she’s now makes me happy,” PCC student Claudia Gill said. “When she thought she was going to do enter the shower, that really got to me, because she wouldn’t be here in front of us sharing her story.”
Others shared this sentiment as well.
“She’s a hero,” Hanvey said. “I don’t think I could have survived for that long in that horror, watching members of your family getting killed, I would have just given up, but here she is, she just kept marching.
Once more, Betty Cohen had told the story of her life. And just as she usually does when she is speaking to an audience, this is how she ends it:
“I play cards once a week, have 4 great grandchildren, am 96 years old and love to dance.”