“Never Again”: 92-Year-Old Toronto Holocaust Survivor Shares Her Story of Auschwitz

Judy Weissenberg Cohen, a 92-year-old Toronto resident was 16 when the Nazis wrenched her from her home in Hungary and sent her to Auschwitz. Photo courtesy of the Azrieli Foundation

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed on Jan. 27, the anniversary of the day in 1945 when the Auschwitz death camp was liberated.

We mark this day annually because we can never forget what happened there and because the remembering moves us to vow “Never again.”

Today, in another century, some eight decades after Auschwitz, the shadow of hate and evil and human depravity that darkened the world then is lengthening again.

There are gathering forces of an aggressive global far right movement  encompassing anti-Semites, white supremacists and neo-Nazis that is threatening religious, racial and ethnic minorities.

In the mob that overtook the U.S. Capitol this month, there were people wearing shirts with hateful anti-Semitic slogans like “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE,” which stands for “6 Million Weren’t Enough” — a reference to the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

Days ago, the Nazi swastika was painted on a Montreal synagogue.

Today, the urgency to declare “Never again” and to insist “Never forget” is fierce indeed.

There can be no forgetting for Judy Weissenberg Cohen.

The 92-year-old Toronto resident was 16 when the Nazis wrenched her from her home in Hungary and sent her to Auschwitz in a cattle car.

For many years, Cohen spoke out as a witness to the Holocaust and when she was 90, she felt the time had come to write about her life. Her detailed, eloquent memoir, “A Cry in Unison: Sistering for Survival,” was published in September by the Azrieli Foundation as part of its Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program.

“If our survivors had the courage to speak and write and share their stories,” says program director Jody Spiegel, “we have a duty to share their legacy.

“We owe it to the survivors and those who didn’t survive that we take the time to learn about the complete events that happened instead of watering it down to sound bites and using the Holocaust as a metaphor.”

Another project to document the experience of the Holocaust is Dimensions in Testimony, an initiative produced by Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation. Using AI technology, Holocaust survivors who are filmed discussing their experiences are turned into interactive holograms, which the public can engage with in a real-time conversation. The first interviewee was Toronto resident Pinchas Gutter, who has also participated in the Azrieli Foundation Holocaust Survivors Memoirs Program.

Cohen’s book recounts her life as a schoolgirl in a large Jewish family in Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city, of the journey from home to the horrors of the desperate daily fight to survive in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, the death march to freedom, post-war life in a displaced persons camp and, finally, emigration to Canada where she married and became a mother.

All of that is narrative, and it is compelling. But equally compelling is the telling of loss, of resilience, of human nature and human behaviour and of sisterly bonding and love. Cohen was one of the first survivors to focus on women’s experiences of the Holocaust.

I asked her whether she thought the Holocaust or something like it could ever happen again.

“It is easily conceivable that given similar political and legal circumstances and official encouragement like during the Nazi Holocaust,” she said, “the popular attitude against the Jews would be the same, even more so if people can see personal gains from our plight.”

In her book, Cohen recalls how neighbours and longtime family friends cheered and laughed as her family and other Jews were marched from their homes to a crowded, fetid brick factory until the trains came to take them to Auschwitz.

“These people, many of whom had been friendly with our parents for 30-some years, had become adversaries,” she writes. “It was difficult for my young mind to understand this, and it is still incomprehensible.”

Even on the boat bringing displaced persons, including Jews and non-Jews to Canada, Cohen recalls, “Jews on the boat suffered from …anti-Semitic remarks. Anti-Semitism was the last thing we expected to accompany us on our way to a new life.”

While anti-Semitism and hatred of ethnic minorities and those regarded as “others” may always be present somewhere deep in the human psyche, it’s important to keep it from erupting again in the way it did in the Holocaust, Cohen believes.

“Young people now and in the future need to learn how the Holocaust happened – the political and social process of 12 years that led from parliamentary democracies to the gas-chambers of Nazi-occupied Poland.

This would give them the tools to recognize the signs should those destructive, evil ideas and their implementations surface again.”

She adds, “Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., comes to mind.”

Talking about the horrors of the Holocaust is necessary, she says, “but that’s the end game, the result of the process. The Holocaust happened with words, with propaganda — social media today comes to mind — and not with the cattle cars and gas chambers.”

Acknowledging that Holocaust history will keep fading into the background as time passes, Cohen says it’s also important to remember the people who perished in the death camps, as did most of her family.

“Six million Jews died, and we need to know how they lived,” says the Azrieli Foundation’s Jody Spiegel, adding that Cohen’s book includes “a beautiful look at Hungarian Jewry before the war. We need these stories and the witnessing to an atrocity that sadly is being forgotten.”

It’s not only what happened during the Holocaust that must be remembered but how it could happen — how an educated, cultured, sophisticated democratic society in the 20th century could deem it appropriate and necessary that the Jewish people and millions of others also regarded as less than human should be starved, tortured and exterminated.

But let us remember also the resilience, combined with luck and instances of kindness and compassion that allowed some to survive.

“We tried to adjust to constantly changing conditions, called forced flexibility,” explains Cohen, “to discard long-term planning; shrink our expectations for the future; support each other emotionally; endure the inevitable; and hope for just mere survival; avoiding death if possible but sometimes it looked inviting; quietly mourn our immense losses. But keep a tiny bit of hope alive.”

Virtual Remembrance Events

 

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is being observed with many free, virtual events this year. Here are three.

Hillel Ottawa, Vered, Embassy of Israel in Canada, and the Max and Tessie Zelikovitz Centre for Jewish Studies at Carleton University invite you to join them on Wed., Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. ET for a virtual International Holocaust Remembrance Day Event entitled Lost Memory, Forgotten Lessons? Holocaust Education & the Challenge of Anti-Semitism Today: A Panel & Discussion of the Film Glass Negatives. Click here to register.

The Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada in Winnipeg is partnering with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for an online event at noon CST on Wed., Jan. 27. The program includes a screening of the 60‐minute film Memories of the Warsaw Ghetto, followed by an interactive discussion with Holocaust survivor Dr. Stefan Carter [Reicher]. The film is based on the childhood of survivor Dr. Eugene Bergman, who was deafened when a Nazi soldier hit him in the head with a rifle butt. Directed by Alexander Genievsky, who is also deaf, the film includes both American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation and captions. The interactive discussion will be moderated by Daniel Stone, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Winnipeg and an expert in Jewish and Eastern European history. The discussion will include an audience Q&A session. Click here to register.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Washington, D.C., will present 18 Voices: A Liberation Day Reading of Young Writers’ Diaries from The Holocaust on Wed., Jan. 27 at 8 p.m. ET. Click here to register.