Esther Cohen, the oldest Greek survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, who became known as a “living testimony” of the Holocaust, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 96.
The Ioannina-born Jewish woman, who had had her official camp number tattooed on her left arm, said in interviews that the number had also been tattooed “on her soul” as well.
Along with so many other Jews, from Ioannina, Thessaloniki and elsewhere in Greece, Esther was rounded up on March 25, 1944. All the Jewish people living in the city were ordered by Greece’s German occupiers to report to Ioannina’s Mavili Square — and the vast majority would never see their beloved city again.
She was somehow able to stay together with her entire family, including her six siblings, all the way to the gates of the concentration camp — but after that point she was never to set eyes on them again, except for one of her sisters.
Returning to Ioannina after the war along with only approximately fifty other members of its original Greek community, she again made her home in the city. In March of 2014, she made headlines when she met with former German President Joachim Gauck in her city.
She told him at that time, “When we die, the world must know that man must not be inhuman.” The German president then embraced her.
“Not a single neighbor peeked through the curtains”
It wasn’t of course just that the Nazi troops were committing these atrocities; the Greek citizens’ complacency and failure to come to the aid of their fellow citizens seemed to haunt Cohen as well, even all those years later.
Interviewed before the meeting, she stated incredulously that when she, her family, and their entire community was marched away to their doom, “When they were pulling us out of our homes and dragging us through the streets so they could send us to Germany, not a single neighbor even peeked through the curtains to see what was going on.”
It was the German president who had requested that they meet during his three-day official visit to Greece.
She told interviewers “I feel odd, shaken. I want to ask him where such hate came from, to burn millions of people alive because it just so happened that they were of a different religion,” she explained at the time.
“Should I accept an apology? Nothing can make up for what they did to us. I have no one to see me off when I do die. They left no one; everyone was burned.”
A total of 1,725 Greek Jews were piled into trucks at the city square on that March day — with the assistance of the Greek gendarmerie.
Some fortunate and daring individuals were able to run away, hiding in the mountains around the city, eventually joining with the resistance fighters who were already living there. One of these brave men was the man Esther would eventually marry years later.
“The last time I saw my parents was on the railway platform in Auschwitz, where we were separated,” she told interviewers in 2014.
“Defend your honor”
“I remember that as they were driven away in the back of a truck, they shouted out, ‘Girls, defend your honor.’ One day when our heads were being shaved by one of the prisoners, she asked me what had become of my parents. I said that I didn’t know. She pointed to the flames coming out of the crematorium and said, ‘There they are, burning.’”
The fact that Cohen lived to return to her beloved city had much to do with luck, in the end. In the camp’s infirmary, she was being looked after a German physician who was of Jewish descent.
He hid her while everyone else in the ward was marched off to the crematorium.
After Auschwitz was liberated, Cohen learned that the only other member of her family to have survived was her sister. Everyone else had been exterminated in the death camps. When she returned to Ioannina, she went straight to her old family home.
But instead of receiving a welcome, or at least a friendly word from a fellow inhabitant of her hometown, she was shaken to the very core of her being.
“I knocked on the door and a stranger opened it,” she related. “He asked me what I wanted and I told him that it was my house. ‘Do you remember whether there was an oven here?’ he asked me.
‘Why yes, of course, we used to bake bread and beautiful pies,’ I replied. ‘Well, get out of here then. You may have gotten away from the ovens in Germany, but I’ll cook you right here in your own home.’ he said.
“I was horrified.”
Somehow, Esther was able to rebuild her life despite this nearly unending hatred and vitriol she had received from so many people in the world around her. She married the resistance fighter called Samuel, who had somehow survived the war in the mountains.
As did so many other Holocaust survivors, after the war she attempted to recover old family possessions which had meant so much to her as a child.
“I found out that the Metropolitan bishop had our two Singer sewing machines. I went and asked for them to be returned to me, but I was told that they had been given to the regional authorities,” Cohen recalled.
“There, they asked me to produce the serial numbers of the machines before they would look for them. They were obviously trying to brush me off,” she says. “I raised my arm and showed them the indelible number from Auschwitz. ‘This is the only number I remember,’ I told them, and left.”
It wasn’t only in the distant past, however, that she and others experienced this kind of hatred and intolerance. Cohen told reporters about an ugly incident which occurred decades later.
“It was one day in the late 1960s,” she said. “A theology professor at the local high school called my daughter (who was also a teacher) a ‘damn Jew’ because he saw her walking with me in the street past the 9 PM curfew.
“She never got over the insult. As soon as she finished the year she moved to Israel. She never came back,” Cohen stated.
When asked by interviewers why she hadn’t spoken up for herself more, Cohen was blunt.
“Because we were scared. We were unloved by everyone. Don’t you see?” she asked plaintively, with tears welling in her eyes.
Esther Cohen’s funeral will take place on Thursday.