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Cohen, Israel I.
Israel I. Cohen oral history interview
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Michael Hirsh.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (28 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (14 p.)
Concentration camp liberators oral history project
This interview was conducted as research for The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust / Michael Hirsch (New York: Bantam Books, 2010).
Interview conducted December 29, 2008.
This is an oral history interview with Holocaust survivor Israel I. Cohen. Cohen was born in Lodz, Poland and was first imprisoned in the ghetto there in 1939. He spent the next six years in concentration camps, ending up in Kaufering, from which he was liberated on April 27, 1945. In this interview, Cohen describes the last few days in Kaufering before liberation and the beginning of his recovery. The guards burned the barracks, and Cohen spent several hours hiding in a pile of corpses before the Americans arrived. He spent the night at a German farmer's house before being taken to a hospital and then to a displaced persons camp in Landsberg. Cohen's memoir, Destined to Survive, was published in 2001.
The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust (New York: Bantam Books, 2010) and Concentration Camp Liberators Oral History Project, University of South Florida Libraries, 2010 Michael Hirsh.
Transcripts, excerpts, or any component of this interview may be used without the author's express written permission only for educational or research purposes. No portion of the interview audio or text may be broadcast, cablecast, webcast, or distributed without the author's express written permission.
Cohen, Israel I.
Kaufering (Concentration camp)
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)
v Personal narratives.
Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)
Crimes against humanity.
University of South Florida Libraries.
Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center.
University of South Florida.
Special & Digital Collections.
Oral History Program.
Holocaust & genocide studies oral history projects.
Concentration camp liberators oral history project.
y USF ONLINE ACCESS
xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8 transcript
text Michael Hirsh: You talk to children in schools about it?
Israel Cohen: I do all the time, yeah. Public schools and Jewish schools.
MH: Okay. Let me start: Your name is Israel I. Cohen, C-o-h-e-n?
MH: What is your date of birth?
IC: Youre not going to get my identity?
MH: No, Im not. Im not trying to check your identity. What year were you born?
IC: I was born in twenty-six , maybe, but because of the Germans, I had to change my year of birth.
MH: On April 25, 1945, you knew already that the Americans were coming?
IC: Already for weeks, already could see the sky was lit as in the daytime with these rockets and so on. And you could hear these bombs falling around, and the artillery was flying over the head.
MH: So what were the inmates of the camp saying?
IC: They hoped that they will be liberated, but the Germans had other plans for themfor us.
MH: Did you know what the Germans plans were, or did you think the Germans would just leave?
IC: No, the Germans made us leave, came back. They wanted to evacuate the whole camp and take them with them. Already once we were in the ghetto, d, and the Russians were there and the Germans took us away. We know already that it is, so we tried to hide to stay there.
MH: Kaufering IV waswhatd they call it, Krankenlager? The sick camp?
IC: No, it was really a working lager. I tell you one thing: If you want to know about Kaufering, there is a German publication which I tookyou know, which I got it from them, and I took some pictures from them. And if Im in the office, I can give you the address or the e-mail, to the email address.
MH: Okay, Well, just tell me what was going on with you the last couple of days.
IC: Last couple days, well, our group of young boys, Hassidim, you know, and we decidedI said, Im not going to go anymore, and I have enough, and so we were hiding. In the beginning, we were hiding in a (inaudible). In the last two months, it was a sick camp, because there were so many epidemics, typhoid fever, and the other sickness, dysentery. So these people with dysentery, youd talk to them, and they just expired, you know?
IC: And so, we hid. We didnt care about the consequences, that we get these contagions. We were hiding there in the tents that the Germans wouldnt come in. But they did come in.
MH: And they didnt find you?
IC: No, we were saved by an alarm, like a (inaudible) alarm that means that the Americans were near, and the Germans run away.
MH: How long did you have to hide before you heard the Americans getting close?
IC: The Americans were very close, but we were hiding through the whole day, the whole night. And then, the next day, we didnt see the Germans. We thought the Germans left, and then the Germans came back, and they evacuated the rest of the people and put them on truck, these people that couldnt move. They put them on the trucks. And we were on the trucks. I was on the truck already three times, but we didnt haveI weighed about seventy pounds when I was liberated. We didnt have no strength, and I was skin and bones. But we triedI know not how the energy was working, you know?
MH: How did you get off the trucks?
IC: We rolled down.
MH: You just rolled down. And the Germans didnt see you?
IC: No, they were busy with other people.
MH: If they had seen you, they wouldve shot you.
IC: Sure. Or they would have put us back on the truck.
IC: Or they wouldve clubbed us to death.
MH: Is there a point where youre so exhausted, youre no longer afraid?
IC: We were still afraid. You see, we didnt want to give the Germans the satisfaction that they gavethis was kind of a rebellion. We didnt want them to think they could do with us what they want.
MH: So, you rolled off the trucks, and the trucks
IC: And we go back the same place, and then they caught us again. Then we hid, and I turned off the lights so there wouldnt be lights at night. So, they came in and ask, Anybody there? Anybody there? I guess they were afraid to go in in the dark, and so they left. And we waited the whole night.
MH: So, thats the night of April 27th.
IC: Twenty-six to twenty-seven, yeah.
MH: Then the sun comes up in the morning, and now what?
IC: Now the sun comes up, it was alreadywe were not sleeping, you know. Some people wanted to celebrate already, and I said, No, we cant celebrate until the Americans come. Dont celebrate. Dont show that we are alive here. And so, we had a guard outside so that would see. One of the boys was outside, and then he told us its not good. The Germans came back and they came with dogs and so on. They came and were hiding again; we were hiding under schmates [rags]how do you call it?
MH: Schmates. I understand.
IC: And other people were hiding in the straw. And then they came in, and then we heard shots and shots and shots. And then they came in, and our luckone of the people which were hiding in the back by the window got up, and they wanted to shoot him, but the gunhow do you call it?
IC: Jammed. He said, Come out, but they all run out of the window. And behind the window, there were ditches, which they dug in case they want to shoot us, to put us in the ditches. So, they run out, they couldnt find him. But some of them were shot, and we heard them afterwards, like moaning and so on. And then they came back again, and then they left. And they came back again and moving the straw. And then went out again, and they opened up the little bit, the rags, and I thought it was full of fire and smoke. And then we crawled out from the door, and there was a pile of corpses, and we lie down on the corpses.
MH: They burned a lot of the barracks.
IC: They must have. All the barracks, except two.
MH: And you were in one of the two they didnt burn.
IC: Yeah. Either they didnt have gasoline or theyre in a hurry. And they burned down also the piles of corpses, put lots of gasoline on them. But here, they didnt have allthey were running, and so we were hiding on these things. Two hours later, the Americans came.
MH: So, you were very lucky you were in a place that didnt get burned.
IC: Yeah, sure. I put it on providence. It was something that wassomething happened that we were supposed to be saved, in spite everything.
MH: Despite everything. So, you were probably nineteen years old then.
MH: You waited two more hours, laying in the pile of corpses?
IC: Yeah. And then I gave up almost, lying there, and I see that the Americans are still not here, and I said, We cant go at another time to hide and run around. Were not able to do it, and so my friends encouraged me again. They said, Now, you told me in Auschwitz we should not give up, never give up, and then in the last minute, so we lay down and the Americans came in later.
MH: When was the last time youd had anything to eat, or drink?
IC: We were eating some raw potatoes, and this was terrible. Afterwards, I got dysentery from it. And we didnt eat for the three days, we almost didnt eat anything.
MH: Tell me about the Americans arriving. Do you hear them coming?
IC: Afterwards, when it was more calm, a little, we went into the kitchen. There was a kitchen which was standing still because it was made of bricks, and they couldnt burn it down. So, we were lying down, and people were hiding still in the kitchen. And then someone came in and said, Jews, we are free. The Americans are here. And I had trouble to get up, and then my strengthI was running, I was doing. But now when the Americans came in, I was ready. I was running, but by nerve, not by my strength. But then my strength left me, and I went down. The Americans came in, the soldiers with the tanks, and they gave us boxes of chocolate and wine and those kind of things.
MH: The person who said, Jews, we are free, they said it in Yiddish?
IC: In Yiddish, Yuden zeinen frei, the Americans areit was Pesach Sheini and I said, Its Pesach Sheini? Its like Passover, a second Passover. We are liberated the same day.
MH: Say the phrase again? Jews, we are free? Say it in Yiddish?
IC: Yuden zeinen frei.
MH: Okay. Where were you exactly when the first American got to you?
IC: I was in the kitchen, hiding in the kitchen.
MH: And what happened?
IC: Then some people brought in some flour and they put on the oven, and we baked the flour like matzos, and I said, Its like Pesach, Pesach Sheini. Then we started to eat something and the Americans came in, and then we went down. We went out to meet the Americans.
MH: Did the Americans carry you out?
IC: No, no.
MH: You were able to walk.
IC: Able to walk still, yeah.
MH: Do you remember the soldier you first saw?
IC: Yeah, I remember the soldiers. I remember the uniforms, but not the faces so much.
MH: You dont happen to remember what unit he was from, what division?
IC: I think it was the 7th Army.
MH: But was it a tank division, armor?
IC: I guess so.
MH: Okay. The patch on his uniform was a triangle?
MH: I know. Im asking you a questionI know. Its sixty-three years ago, and Im asking you a detail like that. I understand. So, what did the Americans do then?
IC: The Americansthe people went out. I couldnt walk, so the Americans took me and a friend of mine. They took a German wagon, for the horses, and they gave us to a farmer nearby that he should take care of us.
MH: They gave you to a German farmer?
IC: Yeah, nearby.
MH: Without American supervision?
IC: Yeah, yeah.
MH: Why would they think a German farmer would take care of you?
IC: The thing is like that. The Germansafter the Americans came in, they all said, We didnt know. You could get from them anything that you wanted.
MH: Yeah. We didnt know. Nicht Nazi. None of them knew.
IC: No, sure. And they were scared. They thought that the Americans are going to do to them what they did to us. They were very scared.
MH: How long did you stay with this farmer?
IC: I had diarrhea the whole night, and my friend, too, and dysentery. We thought we were going to expire there.
IC: And then, you know what the first thing was I wanted?
IC: When I came to the farm, they wanted to give me [something] to eat. I said, No, I dont want to eat. I need a bath, a hot bath. I took off my clothes, and the clothes were full of lice. Full, full; they could walk away by themselves. And then I tookthe farmer had a tub in the stable, and they put in hot water. My skin was burning from these bites of these lice. But I relaxed so much that afterwardsIll tell you one thing: if I see a louse, Im going to faint. I didnt see it since then.
MH: The Yiddish word for that moment would be what, mechaya?
IC: (laughs) Yeah. But then they come and said, Eat! and I ate something. And my friend told me, Dont eat. If you eat now, then
MH: Itll go right through you.
IC: And the next day it was Shabbos, and a friend of ours which was looking for us found us, and he was so happy. He somehow got an American ambulance, and they took us to a hospital. They get me to a hospital, a German hospital.
MH: With German doctors or American doctors?
IC: German doctors.
MH: Yeah? That would scare the hell out of me.
IC: Yeah, sure. But Americans came in. There were also some Americans which came in.
MH: How long were you in the hospital?
IC: In this hospital, it was about five, six days. And then somebody died. This was a hospital really for the German wounded, but they gave us a floor. So, they gave us the best service, but they gave us all kind of food which wasnt good for us. And then one died, and people start to think the Germans poisoned him. So they decidedthey were already fraternalizing, these American doctors, and they took us to Landsberg to a DP [displaced persons] camp, which they made usput up a new hospital there.
MH: So, the Americans then took care of you.
IC: No, nobody took care of us. In Landsberg, nobody took care of us.
MH: No, I mean at the hospital.
IC: At the hospital, there were no doctors, no nurses. We were left on our own.
MH: What happens next?
IC: Next, finally, next dayyoull read my book and youll see a lot of things.
Destined to Survive: Uplifting Stories from the Worst of Times, published in 2001 by Mesorah Publications.
Next daythe doctor came only three days later. They gave us breakfast at eleven oclock the next day, and they get some bread, which was like clay. You could build a house with it. (MH laughs) And it wasnt good. So, finally, the doctor came and put us, put me on a diet withwhats it called?rice and (inaudible). They called this farina, like Cream of Wheat. So I ate rice and
MH: Rice and Cream of Wheat.
IC: for about two weeks, and I felt alreadyfor about a half a year, I couldnt look at Cream of Wheat.
MH: (laughs) Yeah, its
IC: These Americans, they send us a box, a package of the Red Cross. They had something, chocolate, and so a friend of mine said, Lets trade it, and we traded it for a box of meat and fat. And I ate it, and I got sick again. But I felt that I was cleaned out, and the next day, I started to eat slowly, slowly. I put my bread outside the window so from the sun it would get toasted. And so I eat, and then I started to getto be hungry. I wasnt hungry until then.
MH: You began to put weight back on?
IC: No, not yet.
MH: Not yet.
IC: Not yet, not so fast. Â Because there wasnt enough food to eat, you see? I was always hungry. Id eat my bread and I was hungry. I sold my butter and exchanged it for bread. Finally, my friends came and rescued me out of this hospital. They were also at farmers [homes], and then we eat a lot. The farmers have everything to eat. The German farmers have more than the French farmers, than anybody else.
MH: So, you got fresh eggs.
IC: Fresh eggs and butter. We ate so much. I put on meat, but my feet were not carrying me.
MH: To go back to when the Americans came, did you have any time to talk to an American soldier?
IC: No, no.
IC: I just watched as the Americans came. There was a mana friend of ours was also the camp, and he was together in a block with thirty French prisoners. And they already at nightwhen the Germans left, they already started to boil potatoes. They had potatoes, because they took from the kitchen; you know, the kitchen was left. So everyone who came there, you could get how much you wanted, and they were singing.
And then the Germans came in and they put them up all against the wall, and they shot them all point blank. And he was shot, too, went into his face, went in the other side. He faked that he washe was born in Germany, so he talked to them in German. Why do you do it? And so they shot him through, and he had faked it and his mouth open, so a guy saidhe told me that he lookedhe had golden teeth, and they took pliers and tore out his teeth together with the gums. And I saw him. When I came, he stood there with the gums down and the teeth on the gums. And he was bleeding badly.
MH: And he was rescued?
IC: The Americans came. He told me afterward that the Americans came and told the doctors, If he doesnt survive, you are going to be dead. And so they did all the things to rescue him.
MH: So, just so Im clear, they didnt shoot him?
IC: They shot him through the mouth.
MH: Through the mouth, okay. You were in camps for how many years?
IC: From the ghettostarting in the ghetto, from the end of 1939 to April 27th .
MH: When you come out of itand you were an Orthodox Jew?
IC: When I came out?
MH: You were an Orthodox Jew?
IC: All the time.
MH: All the time. And now?
MH: How do you maintain your faith in God when that happens?
IC: Well, Ill tell you one thing. I talk to people, and I talk to I daven in Aish HaTorah which is (inaudible) service. I talk to them, and they ask me, Why did it happen? and I say, I dont know, and nobody knows. In the Talmud it says things that happen to other people, the same thing, Rabbi Akiva and the people ask himMosha Rabbeinu asks, Why did it happen to him? and he said, This is my business. I dont have to tell you, so we dont know. But I say only, if anyone is rescued, he has providence. Hashem [God] wanted him to be saved.
I know that someone lately had a video, from the d ghetto and someone that was he was rescued by chance. I got up and I said that you win the lottery, it could be chance. You win twice the lottery, it could be chance. But if you win the lottery seven, eight times in a row, it cant be chance. Seven, eight times I was just before being killed, and I was saved at the last minute. This cant be a chance.
MH: I understand. When did you come to Canada?
IC: Fifty-one .
MH: In fifty-one . You married before you came, or in Canada?
IC: Afterwards, I wanted to immigrate to Israel, but there was caught up with children, orphaned children in France, an extra bed, and I volunteered to stay with them and help them out. Madrich. And then I was working and with them for almost a year, and I got sick. My lungs were already done, you know. I had TB [tuberculosis], so a friend of mine took me to Switzerland and I was there three years in a sanatorium, in (inaudible).
MH: And you got married?
IC: Yeah, I got married before we left, about fifty-one , July fifty-one .
MH: Okay. Did you have children?
IC: Yeah. Thanks, God.
MH: How many children do you have?
IC: We had five, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Thanks, God, for that.
MH: Okay. A couple more questions: Do you have a picture of yourself from, you know, right after the war?
IC: Not right after the war, but maybe a little bit later, maybe about a month, two months later.
MH: Could I possiblyif I send you an envelope, could I possibly borrow that picture and a current picture of yourself?
IC: Its in my book.
MH: Its in your book, but I cant copy it from your book.
IC: Yeah, sure, you can copy it.
MH: Okay, Ill try.
IC: This asshole who I gave him all theI didnt write it for the book, you see, but I wrote my memoirs because the people in the camps, they wanted somebody should tell the world what happened, that people should know. And I wrote down in the fifties [1950s] and the sixties [1960s] and the seventies [1970s], and I send it to the Jewish newspapers to publish, and they published it in Toronto and New York and Israel. So, afterwards, my children told me, Why dont you put it in a book? See, I wrote in Yiddish, really, and then I had it translated in English. I sent it to my friend Herman Wouk. You heard about him?
MH: I know of HermanThe Caine Mutiny is one of my favorite books.
IC: Yeah. And I see him every year in Palm Springs. I have to go because of my lungs and my asthma. I have to go to Palm Springs for a month or a few weeks. And I see him, and I asked, Tell me if it is worth publishing. So, he said he read it; he read many Holocaust books because of his own books. He said, Your book is one of the top. If you find a publisher, I write you introduction. And I sent it to ArtScroll, and they took it right away. He wrote an introduction.
MH: Okay, which I will read as soon as I get the book. Is it okay if I quote from your book?
IC: Sure. ArtScroll doesnt mind.
MH: Okay. Ill look
IC: The name of the book was Destined to Survive, published by ArtScroll. They wouldnt have anything against it.
MH: I will do that. Ill see about using the photo from the book, and if I cant, Ill either call ArtScroll or Ill call you back.
IC: Yeah, sure.
MH: Well, I thank you very, very much.
IC: What is your phone number?
MH: My phone number is
IC: Hold on for a second. Hold on for a second.
MH: Do you have e-mail?
MH: Whats your email address? Ill send it out.
IC: My email isI have two emails, one is
MH: Okay. Ill send you all my information and the name of my book and everything. Ill email it to you.
IC: Okay. Thank you very much.
MH: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
IC: Youre welcome.
MH: Happy Hanukkah to you.
IC: Happy Hanukkah to you. Chodesh and a good year. Â And you live where, you live in Florida?
MH: I live in Florida now. Im originally from Chicago.
IC: Oh, I see.
MH: But we live in Florida. I was in Los Angeles for nineteen years, and now Im here.
IC: Uh-huh. So, youre retired?
MH: No, no. I write books. Im not retired. My wifes
IC: If I wouldnt have had to work, I would have written a sequel to this book, from my time in Canada.
MH: Ah. It would be interesting. Well, I will read your book, and I look forward to it.
IC: My son-in-law, he writes on the Internet. (inaudible) And he wrote before my book was published, I send him a chapter about Hanukkah. He published it on the Internet. He publishes articles every Friday. Anyway, once he put it on there, many editors put it in print, his name. The Jewish World Review picked it up, and they published the story about Hanukkah. I got after it over twenty emails from Gentiles, how they were impressed with this book, with the Hanukkah story.
MH: Yes, the Internet is amazing, how you can reach out to people. In fact, thats how I found you.
IC: (laughs) Google search?
MH: Well, I did a search for your name. I knew it was in Toronto, and I came up with the phone number. Thank you very, very much.
IC: Youre welcome. Have a good year.
MH: Same to you. Bye-bye.
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