I attended a Holocaust remembrance ceremony yesterday. The special guest was Mrs. Dana Cohen, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and local citizen. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a Holocaust survivor speak in person, so I’d been looking forward to this rare opportunity. The few Holocaust survivors still alive today were young children during the 1940’s, and they are aging and passing away. It’s important to hear their stories directly while we can.
At yesterday’s event, Mrs. Cohen was accompanied by two presenters. The presenters shared a video, narrated Mrs. Cohen’s Holocaust experience, and showed some illustrative (replica) artifacts from Mrs. Cohen’s past. Mrs. Cohen saved her energy for the end, when she answered questions from the audience and received a line of people who wished to speak with her and shake her hand.
In 1940, Russian soldiers shipped Dana and her mother from their hometown in Poland to Siberia. Dana was about 8 to 10 years old. In Siberia, they were made to perform slave labor and given very little food. Many people died slowly and painfully from the hunger and cold. Eerily, there were no walls or fences around the Siberian compound. The prisoners stayed because they knew there was no place to run away to. They were miles and miles away from civilization and surrounded only by frozen tundra. Running away would mean certain death.
After the Russians broke their alliance with Nazi Germany, the Russians released their prisoners. Dana’s mother was able to barter her last treasure and link to her previous life—her wedding ring—to slowly and miraculously leave Siberia with Dana and eventually settle peacefully in Africa. Dana’s father met a different fate. He was a member of the Polish army, and he was captured and murdered by Russian forces in the Katyn Forest Massacre (which I had never heard of until yesterday).
See the short video about Mrs. Cohen’s story here.
Read a brief biography of Mrs. Cohen here.
Learn more about the Katyn Forest Massacre here.
I really wanted to hear Mrs. Cohen’s story, but I was just as interested in seeing her. It sounds weird, but it’s amazing to me that someone can survive pure horror and not somehow bear visible scars or other physical markings. It seems like all that sheer bad energy would have to “go” somewhere, would have to make a dent or bulge somehow, like bad bacteria in a soup can. Even if you managed to push it out of yourself, it seems like it would burn a hole through your skin. So I was curious to see how Mrs. Cohen looked today, and in person.
So how did she look?
She looked freaking fantastic.
Mrs. Cohen’s hair is pure white and cut in a short, soft style. She wore a knee-length black pencil skirt (with pockets!) paired with a springy purple scarf and green zippered jacket. She wore low black heels and—get this—her legs were bare. And they looked great. Mrs. Cohen sometimes stood with her hands in her skirt pockets, too, which made her look very modern and cool. I hope I look half as good when I’m her age.
And here’s another thing—she’s tiny. Mrs. Cohen is short and thin—a very petite, delicate lady. It’s amazing to think that this small person was able to survive so much. As I looked at Mrs. Cohen, I kept thinking—in a complimentary way—that this lady is a tough bird. 🙂
Mrs. Cohen didn’t give a speech, but she answered audience questions after the presentation. We asked mostly about her family and relatives. Her 27 closest relatives from Poland perished in the Holocaust. Two great uncles (her grandmother’s brothers) had immigrated to the U.S. (before the war?), so she eventually moved to the U.S. at their encouragement. She was married to her husband for 40 years before he passed away.
I asked her if she had any children, and she answered that she has one son. I then asked her if she had any grandchildren and she simply said, “No.” Then she smiled and said “Not yet,” like her son better get his act together. 🙂 Mrs. Cohen has a Polish accent and a good sense of humor. She said her mother loved Africa and would always talk about how great life was there. Mrs. Cohen said that if it rained in the U.S., her mother would talk about how the rain in Africa was better. 🙂
The mood was fairly light in the room as Mrs. Cohen answered mostly logistical questions from the audience and showed her sense of humor, so it felt impolite to ask her the heavy questions that I really wanted to ask. Like…
– What does hunger feel like?
– What did it feel like to be stranded in Siberia, so far away from help? What does that kind of despair and lonesomeness feel like?
– How does your experience in Siberia affect you today? Do you have any persistent habits, behaviors, or thoughts that are related to your time in the camp?
– Is it ever hard to feel full, or warm, or safe?
– Do you bear any ill will towards Russia, Germany, or Japan?
These are such personal questions, but I think they are important questions, and yet I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable asking Mrs. Cohen these questions even if we weren’t in an auditorium full of people.
I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to hear Mrs. Cohen’s story, and I learned some new things about the Holocaust that I had never heard before. I encourage everyone to seek out similar opportunities before it’s too late.
One more thing:
When the young Mrs. Cohen and her mother were in the Siberian prison camp, they received care packages from their former nanny and housekeeper, a Polish lady named Magda. This boggles my mind. Imagine: You’ve been exiled to frozen Siberia, the end of the world, surrounded by nothing…worked and starved almost to death by your captors…yet they made sure you got your mail? In a world full of chaos and evil, somehow the mail system was open and working. That to me is evidence of the strangest and scariest element of World War II. In such a modern time among first-world countries–with vaccines! cars! Coca-Cola!–such horrible things happened so publically and on such a grand scale.