Thursday, 21 November 2013

Judy Cohen- 70 years after Auschwitz

      A poem written by Judy Cohen, after she publicly told her story for only the third time;

stand in front of you
and see your innocent stares,
looking at me, anticipating a personal account of my
pains and nightmares.

How do I begin?
How can I make you understand and feel
the deep scars that I carry
fragile and still easy to bleed?

How do I tell you about human created hunger
hopeless, no-end-in-sight,
when, perhaps, you just had a good meal
and feel full and warm inside?

How do I tell you about constant fear
in the pit of the stomach, the nauseating kind
when, hopefully, you experienced only
goodwill and peace in your short life?

How do I tell you about losing family and friends
in a matter of minutes
by moving thumbs in white gloves,
belong to a Nazi
a so- called human being?

How do I tell you about the odor of burning flesh,
tortures and killings of innocent people
that were planned cold bloodedly, years before!
drinking and singing around the table?

How do I tell you about Auschwitz-Birkenau
the efficient killing machine
where mothers, babies, children and the old
marched to the "showers" and out as smoke?

How do I tell you about being torn from
all my loved ones in my teens
when you only know and should know
the warm embrace of family and peers?

How do I tell you about
the genocide of six million and more
during which my family lost eighty one,
when you can happily look at yours and declare
missing: NONE.

I do however, know to praise
those wonderful few, defiant and brave,
at great risk to themselves,
reached out and helped many lives to save.

I stand in front of you
and see your innocent stares,
but having heard it all
your gaze is no longer there!

You have lowered your eyes
so sorry! I saddened you,
having heard a witness
now, you become a witness too.

To inform and teach my story is told.
I urge you to be fair-minded and bold.
For it is up to you, THE YOUNG
how the future will unfold.

Let us create a society
free of hatred and hunger
where respect for each other
glows like a beautiful ember.

     The author of this poem, Ms Judy (Weissenberg) Cohen, until a few months ago, was a stranger to me. Now? She's a personal hero. It's weird the impact someone can make on you so fast, so powerfully, without them even realizing. It becomes even stranger when my initial motives of meeting her are brought into the picture, for when I think of it now, they were selfish. Selfish, immature, and uneducated. I feel it's only respectful to tell the true story of my "discovery" of Judy. 
     The Holocaust of World War Two has always been a subject matter that I found interesting. It was one night, sometime in July, that I decided to research if there were any Canadians near where I lived that I could have the chance to sit down with, and hear the atrocities of those years first hand from. That was my interest, to hear, as Judy put it in her poem, "a personal account of her pains and nightmares." I realized, months later, how immature, and quite frankly rude, that was. During my research, I discovered the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Centre. At the bottom, I found a contact link. This link then lead me to a list of speakers and survivors affiliated with the Centre, and on that list I read a short biography of several individuals. Among the many, was Judy. In her section, I read how she survived Auschwitz- Birkenau, known as one of the worst death camps in the world. A camp where over 1.1 million people died. 
     An email was sent, a contact made, and my work was explained. Judy was interested in meeting. 
Judy in her living room, answering one of my questions. 
Photo by Victoria Alexander.

     My schedule became bogged down with school work, other interviews, and my job. It was then that I received some news, Judy informed me she was in the middle of some health concerns. The thing was, Judy didn't let this stop her. She still wanted to meet me, still invited me over to her house for us to sit down and have a chat. I'm smiling as I write this, because Judy only ever seems to email me around midnight. Most nights, it seemed, I would be lying in bed and receive an email from this incredible 85 year old woman about how her day went (I always loved asking), and that recurring question as to when I was coming down. One line from her read; "don’t give up on me. Somehow, sometime we will get together.". I couldn't help smiling. After five long months of cyber-interactions, a time and date was set. On a Saturday November 16th, at 2:00pm, I would finally meet Judy. 
     Of course, after I picked up my photographer and long-time friend Victoria from back home in Ingersoll, my stress grew. Not only my deep-seated, often recurring road rage when trying to understand GPS directions, but the worry that I wouldn't live up to the expectations of Judy, whom I felt I had become quite close with in the span of our near 50 email interactions. Once I, once again, got lost on the way to her place, all I was worried about was not being late. With a minute to spare, Victoria and I made it to the condo building, introduced us to the concierge who knew we were coming, and got in the elevator. Shoes were tied, shirt was straightened, the hall was walked, and I knocked on her door. That's when, for the first time, I heard Judy. Yelling "come in", I sighed nervous and did just that.
Downtown Debrecen, Hungary. 

      Judy was in a family of seven children, growing up in an eastern Hungarian town. Her father was a metal worker, a trade her older brother would later become a partner in. When she was born in 1928, the first Anti-Jewish law came out in Europe, in her home country of Hungary, limiting the numbers of Jewish youth entering university. Her personal childhood life was pretty peaceful, but around her the environment was changing. "Whatever anti-Semitism was happening in Hungary, it never effected me." She had memories of singing in public school, acting in the plays, and bonding with friends. A recurring thought that Judy had in those years was one of safety. But, i1940, at age 12, her father's business licence was taken away.The country stopped funding Jewish schools, and Judy was forced to work in order to pay for her tuition, so she took up tutoring. In 1944, her town become occupied by German soldiers, and her life was forever changed.The holocaust was beginning. Judy was only 15.

     Judy looked up at me from her couch, to the one I was sitting on. She told me how it's impossible to describe what happened next, not even because of the personal trials, but because it's impossible to explain how the experiences effected the 15 year old girl she was. She told me then how she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, then forced to go to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, eventually forced into a slave labour camp in which she was forced to build airplane parts. When the war was coming to an end, she was sent on a death march with other prisoners. Forced to move away from the front lines and inevitably die before being liberated by Allied troops. She was just over 16 when she was saved.

      Alone at the time of her safety, Judy had no idea what to do. It was then she united with what she told me became her "camp sisters". Friends from childhood she found during their own liberation who she could stick with, since, as she told me, being alone was another death sentence. Upon making it home, she found what was expected. None of her family was there, although, to her joy, this soon changed. After a while came the youngest of her brothers, she found out she wasn't alone. Together the two further learned that one of their sisters was in a displacement camp in Germany, with this news, the two left Hungary for good. Unfortunately, they learned that the three of them were the only survivors from their family. Judy's parents, sister, and nephew were killed upon their initial arrival in Auschwitz. Her two sisters she was with in Auschwitz starved to death shortly after Judy was moved to Bergen-Belsen. Her eldest brother was enlisted into the Hungarian army, unarmed, to walk in front of the troops in case of landmines. Upon being diagnosed with typhoid fever, he was put in a hospital which was then burnt to the ground when Axis forces were retreating. Is this what I wanted to hear? I realized then that I was wrong, this wasn't what I wanted to hear. I think what I really wanted to hear was the answer to one of the hardest things to imagine. How did Judy move on? How could you? When Canada slowly opened their doors to Jewish immigrants who survived the war, Judy and her sister received contracts to become garment workers in Montreal, which they moved to fulfill. Her brother came overseas a few months later. 
     It was 1948, she was 19, and ready for a new life. The same age I am now, and already with so much behinds her. Canada became a haven, and Judy had no interest in ever returning to Europe. Her union offered French classes, and she decided to learn English from McGill. With her new grasp of language she decided to get a business certificate, and eventually moved to Toronto to be with her new husband. She had herself two children, and she told me "she lived a normal, middle class life." 
     “Our lives became normalized. We still had a lot of psychological trauma, but we were normalizing.” Life, as it were, as a habit of coming full circle. As it did with Judy, fifty years after her imprisonment.

Judy Cohen and I, Photo by Victoria Alexander

     It was 1993, the year before I was born, Judy told me, that things changed again. We sat in her living room, about 40 minutes into our chat, when Judy told me about her now adult children. Her husband was slowing down, she had just turned 65, and in only three months, she would be retiring. When her lunch break came one day, she decided to take a walk in the Bay and Bloor street corner where her workplace was. Down the street, she saw a group of protesters holding signs, and chanting. She then heard, loud and clear; "white power, we want more white power". Leading the group was a man she noticed from television; the now deceased white supremacist and neo-Nazi Wolfgang Droege. Like a blast back in time, she was face to face with individuals such as the ones who ruined her childhood, who murdered her family. Droege walked up to a pedestrian and informed them how black slavery never happened, victims simply made up the story. Before he could even mentioned the Holocaust, Judy walked up to him, right in between Droege and the pedestrian, and informed the street walker that "this man is nothing but a bloody Neo-Nazi". She feels she wasn't a hero that day, but I have to respectfully disagree. Judy stood up to her past, evident when Droege took a step back into the crowd. Judy, it seemed, found her voice.
     When her retirement came, when went to the Holocaust Centre and asked what she could do to help. That was twenty years ago, twenty years of speaking to student from Victoria, British Colombia to Sydney, Nova Scotia. She learned that as a witness, it was her responsibility to make sure something like this never happened again. Some days she questions if what she's saying is really sinking in, especially after watching the news. “I try to enjoy what is still enjoyable in each day," she told me, "and there is always something to enjoy.”

     I realized that I in fact heard what I wanted to hear from Judy. Even with something such as the holocaust, we can move on. We can find happiness. What an incredible lesson, from an incredible lady. Judy Cohen told me that as a witness, it was her responsibility to share her story, so this never happens again. She told me that by listening to her, I became a witness too. By sharing her story will all who read this, you've now become witnesses too. 

The incredible Judy Cohen and I.
Photo by Victoria Alexander.

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