The story of a true survivor
As the anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen- Belsen concentration camp approaches, Lady Zahava Kohn tells Bridget Galton about the years her family spent in Nazi detention- and their miraculous survival.
LADY ZAHAVA Kohn unpacks a box of family mementoes in her elegant living room.
Although her rheumatism makes it painful to walk, the 75-year-old has the spirit and demeanour of a woman ten years younger.
But the chilling reminders of Third Reich bureaucracy that she lays on the table tell the story of a childhood spent amid disease and death.
A yellow cloth star of David; a Visa for Honduras that came too late, a trio of aluminium plates, and a laundry checklist from Westerbork were among a trove of keepsakes discovered in a suitcase following her mother’s death in 2006.
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Rosy’s painstaking preservation of documents from the war years, moved Zahava to write a memoir – Fragments of A Lost Childhood – and share her family story with hundreds of pupils.
Her daughter Hephzibah, who works in Holocaust education, persuaded her to break her silence about the war years to give talks in schools.
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“She was cleaning out her mother’s apartment in Israel when she came across a suitcase full of documents. My grandmother never told mum about its existence but she must have taken considerable risks to hide it in the camps and went to incredible lengths to keep it all those years. It seemed a sign to do something with them,” says Hephzibah, who for five years was tour director of a play about Anne Frank And Then They Came For Me, which played to schoolchildren, followed by a talk by Eva Schloss, the diarist’s step-sister.
Hephzibah, a former Henrietta Barnett and Royal School pupil, adds: “The experience prompted me to think about my mother. I have always been interested in mum’s background but throughout our childhood, nothing was spoken about and as time went on I realised there was a limited window for first hand testimony about the Holocaust.”
For Zahava the sessions have been an eye-opener: “It interested me to see the reaction of youngsters to the history. They are used to seeing much older people who survived, but a young survivor who was only a child in the camps they could relate to.”
Hephzibah adds: “The sessions have been fantastic to engage children in a way that they can hear about a terrible period of history and not feel inhibited about asking mum certain questions. I want to show them the positive outcome, a whole family survived, one hidden by Dutch resistance for the duration of the war, they became successful, did well and here they are today, not feeling sorry for themselves.”
Zahava agrees her parents didn’t want their lives defined by victimhood. She recalls recuperating post-war in Switzerland and trying not to draw attention to her status as a survivor among a group of Swiss youngsters who commented: “but you are so normal”.
“I will always be grateful that my parents never talked to my brother and me about it. They wanted us to carry on and have a normal life without feeling sorry about the past, that’s why I never really talked about it to my own children.”
Zahava was born in Palestine in 1935 to Polish-born parents. But within two years the family returned to Europe and settled in Amsterdam.
Her brother Jehudi was born in August 1941, but amid wide-scale round ups of Dutch Jews, the family took the painful decision to send their 16-month-old into hiding.
The day he was taken by the local resistance, Rosy wasn’t allowed to know where he was going, or to attract attention by watching him leave.
“I remember when she gave my brother away, she was in floods of tears but she couldn’t go to the window to see him off,” says Zahava.
“My mother was greatly upset and affected by this, but it was his only hope for survival. He was Aryan looking with blonde hair and blue eyes, he was sent to an orphanage outside Amsterdam. The SS came and took 43 of the 45 children and deported them to the camps but they left Yehudi and another child because they didn’t realise they were Jewish. He was sent to a nurse who looked after him for the duration of the war. He remembers she hid him and a handicapped child among her own children. He was rarely allowed out of the house – once he ran into her garden with no underpants and she chased him inside before anyone saw that he was circumcised.”
On May 26, 1943 The SS arrived at the family’s apartment and took them to Westerbork transit camp where they spent the next nine months.
During that time, the resistance smuggled in a photo of Jehudi in a bag of beans which Rosy kept until she was finally reunited with her son in 1946.
It was Zahava’s birth in Palestine that gave the family protection from the gas chambers – because British protected subjects were useful to arrange swaps for German POWs.
“We were on the platform about to get on a cattle car to Auschwitz. I remember every train had two Red Cross carriages for the Gestapo, and I asked could we go very early to get a seat near the window,” says Zahava.
“My parents explained those carriages weren’t meant for us. Standing there outside the train, they wanted to go on the last carriage with their friends. They came to pull us out of the queue because of my special papers. Two minutes later we would have been inside.”
Arriving at Belsen in February 1944, Zahava’s father was put in a separate camp and her mother looked after the officers, which allowed her to collect cigarette butts and swap them for crusts of bread.
Zahava was often ill and spent hours on her bunk. “It was a starvation labour camp, people died of diseases like typhoid and dysentery. There was always shooting going on around us and huge dogs near the trains – to this day I find dogs and fireworks terrifying.”
When they left Belsen in January 1945 as exchange prisoners on a Red Cross train, the family were near to death. Emaciated and sick, 10-year-old Zahava weighed just 23kg, and her father 45kg. They were taken to Biberach internment camp where the Red Cross gave them food and medical care until liberation by the French in April. Even then the family spent months in hospital recuperating and all three were subsequently plagued with ailments; joint, stomach and heart problems.
Zahava’s legacy of standing outside in snow without shoes for daily roll calls is chronic rheumatism.
“My father was affected very badly,” she recalls. “He died at 72 but he had many diseases, as did my mother. She was almost 94 when she died but it was her strength of character that endured.”
When Rosy and Zahava went to collect Jehudi, he didn’t recognise them and was given toys to persuade him to return to Amsterdam, where family life quickly resumed.
“Straight away, we had a wonderful family life. They were very loving parents and did everything possible to make us feel we had a happy childhood.”
Zahava came to England in 1961 to work as a secretary, then a teacher. She settled in Golders Green, then Hampstead and had three daughters with her German-born husband.
She says: “I hope these talks help children feel they should have a better understanding towards other nations and people – and to see what can happen if you don’t.”
o Fragments of a Childhood is available at Daunt Books, Waterstones, Joseph’s Bookstore or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, priced �11.99.