AUSCHWITZ SURVIVOR TELLS STU AUDIENCE ABOUT THE POWER OF REMEMBERING
(originally published Feb. 3/2009 in the Aquinian)
Judy Cohen has no tattoos from her time in Auschwitz- the camp left much deeper, far more permanent marks.
“It’s a common misconception, not everybody was tattooed,” said the 81 year old survivor, who spoke at McCain Hall on January 27.
She said that’s not the only misconception that has been inked about the holocaust- over the years she’s read of the therapeutic value of sharing trauma and opening up about anguish. But she can only shake her head at such notions.
“This is not catharsis for me,” she said, her slight laugh lines deepening with a sad smile. “It’s so hard, so frustrating to try and explain these feelings. It’s not tangible if you did not experience it.”
But she did experience it, and she worked past that frustration to try and explain it to her Fredericton audience as part of the St. Thomas Holocaust Center’s recognition of the International Day of Commemoration. And, tangible or not, she has felt compelled to convey that anguish in front of countless other audiences, and on her website, so that no one will forget what sparked it.
“It’s importance for me to talk about it because I witnessed it, I experienced it,” she said. “And just like in any other trial, an eye witness is important- so I can assert the truth as I saw it, and fight against denial.”
Proving her case hasn’t always been easy- not only was she not tattooed in Auschwitz, her family wasn’t registered. Most of the holocaust deniers she’s encountered have been quick to dismiss her story because it lacks what they call tangible proof.
“Most Hungarian Jews- my family among them, who came quite late- weren’t even registered. It’s very difficult to explain, the Nazis had a complex system with no rhyme or reason.”
Cohen and her family were well aware of the reason why they were being deported in June of 1944. But as they sped from their Hungarian home toward Auschwitz, they had no idea what was in store for them.
“We were stunned. We didn’t really know what was waiting for us- except for search lights and electric fences, S.S. men and dogs,” she said. “We’d all heard horrible rumors about what was happening, but we thought we were just going there to work. The arrival was traumatic, but we didn’t really understand what was happening.”
That’s because the truth was shrouded in a special Nazi vernacular that kept the prisoners in the dark and at bay. The deportation was called ‘resettlement,’ many prisoners were sentenced to strip naked in what was called a ‘sauna,’ and the gas chamber was adorned with a sign that read ‘showers.’
And as the men and women were separated with a flick of the guard’s thumb, Judy had no idea she would never see her father again. She was left to wander a special section of the camp that the prisoners called Mexico and, with no heat or running water, the worst of the worst was saved for Hungarian Jews.
“If you could only put words to the feelings in Auschwitz,” she said. “I’m not sure how to convey the constant fear, the kind that literally affects your stomach and gives you nausea.”
The more she saw, the more that terror churned in the pit of her gut. She said it was all but impossible for men to stay out of the camps- Nazi patrols only had to strip them naked to see if they were circumcised. But Judy said things were no easier for women in Auschwitz. Mothers screamed as their children were ripped from their arms. Abortions were performed with all but bare hands, for those looking to avoid the same fate. And other women had to open their wombs to more wounds, for men looking to barter empty sex for bread.
“The air in Auschwitz was always terrible,” she said with a grimace, as if that bitter odour still lingers in her nostrils to this day. “It took us a week or two to realize it was the smell of burning human flesh, of all those that had to leave the line to the left- your family, your parents. You had to live with the sadness of what happened to them, and with the terrible smell all the time. And you had to live with the fear that you might be next, or your sister.”
As miserable as it was, she said Hungarian Jews had gradually come accustomed to a turn for the worst. In the years leading up to Auschwitz, she saw her father loose his job, her family looted of their belongings, her neighbours strapped with a Star of David patch, and every last Jewish voice banned from the airwaves.
“Hate propaganda became the order of the day, but I was a peppy, rambunctious child,” she said of her time growing up in Hungary, before the deportation. “As Hitler rose to power, I was mercifully unaware of its significance, or how it would affect my life a few years later.”
In fact she wasn’t truly aware of how merciless it all was until it was over. The prisoners were liberated by the U.S. army in 1945, and Judy and spent the next two years waiting in the Belsen Displaced Persons camp. With her family dragged to the chambers or other camps, she found solace with the girls she shared crumbs with in Auschwitz, and they became her new “camp sisters” before they were saved and moved from the concentration camp to the refugee camp.
“You needed somebody for a sense of belonging, to give you courage if you faltered and didn’t want to go on,” she said of the women who stood by her side in those dire days.
“We were washed before we got to eat- that’s how filthy we were,” she said of her rescue. Their bloody feet were tended to, and they were given fresh clothes. In the American camp she had to adjust to losing a constant gnawing hunger, and an even more persistent dread.
“The point of liberation by Americans truly meant nothing more to us than what it could do physically,” she said. “You didn’t have to experience that endless hunger anymore, and you didn’t have to fear for your life.”
But her soul was still left ragged- it was 1945, and it occurred to no one that a 16 year old holocaust survivor would need psychological treatment for the trauma she endured.
“That’s when you started to think ‘What now? What is the future?'” she said. “I had my camp sisters, but I felt alone. I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life, or how to go out to look for my family.”
Judy and her camp companions went back to Hungary, in hopes of tracking down their loved ones. Judy eventually found her brother, who was liberated by the Soviets, and before long one of her sisters made her way back home as well. Out of seven siblings, they were the only three to survive.
Together they immigrated to Montreal in 1948, under a year long garment industry contract. They grew new roots there and, as it became her new home, Judy realized the strength of such a foundation- its power to do both ill and good, and the value of speaking about it.
“The holocaust started with words, and you can learn that at home,” she said. “You can teach, or be taught, to not laugh at hateful jokes, to not judge, to not be silent. Because silence is the incubator, and the best way to stop it is learning personal responsibility from your loved ones.”
Judy said those lessons are more important now than ever, in Gaza’s era of anguish and the anti-Semitism that rises from it just as readily as a century ago. She said we need the memory of those who died to keep hope alive.
“I always have hope,” she said. “Because, if not, what else can you have?”
Photo taken by Kyle Mullin