Judy Cohen shares survival story


In order to coincide with Holocaust Education Week, the Historical Studies Society at UTM hosted Gender and Genocide Week in the North Building from November 1 to 4 in collaboration with the Women’s Centre and UTMSU. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day (except Thursday which started at 11 a.m.), the Historical Studies Society held a memoriam in NB 143, where display boards were hung, documentaries and films were screened on a huge TV, and special lectures were held.

The boards presented information, particularly on the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1918 in Turkey which killed about 1,500,000 and the Nazi Holocaust of World War II in which about 6,000,000 Jews were murdered. Documentaries included Paragraph 175, Aimee and Jaguar, and Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking.

Special lectures ran from Tuesday to Thursday. Professor Tong Lam of UTM spoke on Tuesday about the Nanking massacre and the following day professor Mairi Cowan about women and witchcraft persecutions.

On Thursday, all were welcome to hear the keynote speaker, Holocaust survivor Judy Cohen, give a lecture to the Intro to Studies of Women and Gender class in the Davis Building. The youngest of seven children, Cohen survived the Auschwitz-Berkenau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, a slave labour camp, and a death march. With a red poppy on her lapel, Cohen invited the audience to “walk into history together”.

She started her talk with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime (saying it “erased all democracy”), the unfolding of anti-Semitism, the Final Solution, and Kristallnacht. She described in detail the atrocities she witnessed that were “legal and criminal at the same time”.

Cohen spoke of the horrors women endured in the concentration camps, which included the “choiceless choices” women had to make in order to survive, such as abortion. Women also led countless undocumented uprisings in the camps that ended in their executions.

After the men were called to serve in the army, women became the heads of the households and headed their businesses before they were shut down, Cohen said. She briefly talked about the pregnancies, abortions, brothels, and bartering for sex that occurred in the ghettos and concentration camps, which violated women’s rights in particular.

Cohen also spoke at length about her large family and the effect that the Nazis had on their lives in Hungary before they were deported to concentration camps.

She emphasized that the Holocaust began because of ideology. The Holocaust “started with words” and now it serves as a “warning against hate speech and propaganda”, says Cohen. “Everybody stopped thinking independently and followed the official rule.”

Finally, Cohen spoke about liberation from the camps, though she wondered, “Can anyone be liberated from memories like this?” She was reunited with her two surviving siblings and the three migrated to freedom and peace in Canada, where Cohen married and had two children. After she encountered a Neo-Nazi Holocaust-denier group in downtown Toronto, Cohen was motivated to begin educating others about her experiences.

“I can’t begin to tell you how I felt,” Cohen said about her encounter with the Neo-Nazi group. “My advice is not to start debates with Neo-Nazi denier groups. The best thing you can do is to educate the youth.”

In closing, when asked by a member of the audience how she managed to “remain intact” during her time in the Holocaust, Cohen replied, “Pure luck.” Cohen attributes her survival to “being in the right place at the right time” and to the encouragement of two women she met in the camps to not give up because the war was almost over.

“Sheer luck,” Cohen said. “Bits and pieces helped us to survive. There were tiny sparks of life here and there. These are also the stories that need to be told.”

Professor Joan Simalchik, co-ordinator of the Department of Women and Gender Studies and faculty liaison with the Historical Studies Society, said, “The hope [of Gender and Genocide Week] is to understand that often gender violation and gender aspects of genocide are not visible. This is an opportunity to present these hidden violations. Our keynote speaker, Judy Cohen, explains it very well.

She says, ‘We’re not saying women’s or men’s experiences were worse, just that we were all in the same hell, but experienced different horrors.’”

In an effort to explain the question of why genocide continues to this day and this very moment, Simalchik answered, “It’s really hard to put it down. I guess humanity has not learned to live with difference and appreciate difference, but it goes much deeper than that. Issues of power and control and abuse of power factor greatly.”

What can be done about the genocides currently happening around the world? In response to this, Simalchik said, “Why didn’t people do anything for 45 years of apartheid in Africa? Small acts come together and efforts are being made. This [event] is an effort. These are the voices speaking out. We need to have more focus on it and step up and say, it’s time that this practice of genocide ends. You wouldn’t hear people saying they’re pro-genocide, but we need to hear voices loud and clear. Then it has a possibility of stopping. As long as the perpetrators think they can get away, they’ll carry on, but if they hear the world loudly and clearly, they’ll know they can’t get away.”

Cohen’s extensive website, which focusses on women’s experiences during the Holocaust, can be found at www.theverylongview.com/WATH.