Remembering Holocaust survivors

Most Holocaust survivors have passed on, and while their stories may be etched in the minds of their families and friends, there are still many stories that remain untold and unrecorded.

By ROBERT HERSOWITZ
August 29, 2019 14:40
Remembering Holocaust survivors

Masha Greenbaum in the center with her daughter Ettie Kornbluth and granddaughter Nava Horowitz, at the Holocaust Remembrance Day Yiddish ceremony at the Jerusalem Theater earlier this year. (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)


It was recently announced in Hamburg that Bruno D., a 92-year-old German, will go on trial in October charged with helping to murder 5,230 prisoners (many of them Jewish) at the Stutthof concentration camp. The name of this terrible place is not unfamiliar to me. During my formative years, I met and got to know at least five individuals who were incarcerated there. As Elie Wiesel once said: “He who listens to a witness, becomes a witness.”

It is now 74 years since World War II ended. Most Holocaust survivors have passed on, and while their stories may be etched in the minds of their families and friends, there are still many stories that remain untold and unrecorded.

In South Africa where I grew up there were far fewer Holocaust survivors, mainly due to government policies at the time. The South African and British governments placed a quota on Jewish refugees before the war, and even after the war it was difficult for survivors to receive visas to enter the country. Those who did were usually sponsored by close family members.

Two such cases stand out in my memory. These were two women who lived in our neighborhood in Johannesburg, Eta Cohen and Essie Thwaites. Eta lived next door to us at 66 Judith Rd in the suburb of Emmarentia. She was married to Dr. Morris Cohen, a widower with children.

Eta was from Liebau, a port city in Latvia (today Liepaja). She was an attractive woman, with striking blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, and spoke with an unusual middle European accent that sounded like she was German. I discovered later that she had been educated in a German-speaking gymnasium school that catered to the children of upper middle-class families. At home she and her family spoke German and Yiddish; the Latvian language was less used among the Jewish community.

As a child, I was very fond of “Auntie” Eta. My next door neighbor Linda and I made a game of visiting her on a regular basis. We called it “visiting the dentist,” and in the afternoons after school, we two seven-year-olds would pick some flowers in the garden and make our way to the large house on the corner. At first we would hesitate, but then we would pluck up the courage to walk up the driveway and ring the bell of Dr. Cohen’s surgery hoping that Auntie Eta and not Dr. Cohen would come to the door.

“Children, how lovely to see you!” she would coo. We’d hand over the flowers and she would invite us into Dr. Cohen’s plushly carpeted consulting room. There the ritual would take place. She would reach up to a cupboard and remove a large tin of wrapped candies. She knew exactly what we were after. “Help yourselves, darlings,” she would beam, and watch us as we stuffed the booty into our pockets.

Eta had no children of her own, and my sister and I became like a second family to her. This connection continued well into my mature adult years. As I grew older I began to hear snippets of her past from my mother, and I was discouraged to talk to her directly about her wartime experiences. I learned that she had been in a concentration camp, and that she’d lost her entire family except for one brother who immigrated to South Africa before the war.

At about the same time, my parents became friendly with one of Eta’s best friends, Essie Thwaites and her husband, Jimmy. I was told that Essie and Eta had been together in the same concentration camp. Later I learned of a third inmate, Johannesburg resident Mrs. Fanny Krasner, survivor and close friend of Eta and Essie. All three had been in Stutthof.

Located 34 km from Gdansk in Poland, the camp was one of the first to be built by the Germans, and one of the last to be liberated. It was originally built to house Polish intellectuals and political prisoners, and deportations of Jews to Stutthof began in 1941. It is estimated that between 63,000 and 65,000 prisoners died there, of which 28,000 were Jews.

There are many oral testimonies that can be found on the Internet, which bear witness to the atrocities that were committed at Stutthof. One example is the account of a remarkable woman who is still alive and living in Jerusalem, 92-year-old Masha Greenbaum. Now mentally frail, Masha once was an accomplished guide at Yad Vashem. She is also the renowned author of a book titled The Jews of Lithuania, first published in 1995. Masha also wrote a book published by Yad Vashem about her experiences as a camp survivor, with harrowing descriptions of the deprivations and torture that she and her family sustained. A recurring theme of survivors’ testimonies is the extreme hunger they endured. The Germans deliberately provided rations that would last for no more than six weeks.

I vividly remember my Mom telling us about Auntie Eta.

“Whenever she and Morris travel overseas to visit family in Israel, Eta lines her travel rug and winter coat with extra zipped pockets,” my mother said.

“Why would she do that?” I would ask incredulously.

“In order to smuggle certain foodstuffs like salamis and beef products, which are almost impossible to get in Israel,” my mother answered. “She learned how to survive in the camps. She once told me how she always adds a little water to the bottom of the milk bottle and drinks it before getting rid of the bottle. She believes that nothing should ever be wasted.”

By then I was 12 years old and began to find out more about the Shoah. The Eichmann trial was on in Jerusalem. There was no television in South Africa, the newspapers were severely censored, and the only information we could get was from listening to overseas radio broadcasts including “Kol Zion LaGolah.”

I remember asking Eta about her experiences. She remained quite reticent, probably wanting to protect me from learning too much about the horrors she had witnessed. Many years later when Eta was in her 80s, following the making of Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List, a worldwide project funded by Spielberg was launched to record the testimonies of survivors throughout the world.
By then I was living in London. I kept in touch with Eta through my parents. Ironically, both my parents and the Cohens had downsized and relocated to new homes just a few doors away from each other, and they remained good friends and neighbors.
After Morris passed away in his 90s, Eta chose to remain in the house where she lived alone with her trusted African carer Lettie, who had worked with the Cohens for over 30 years.

On one of my visits home, Eta asked if we’d like to see the oral testimony video that the Spielberg people had made with her. She did not have a VCR player, and so we invited her to come over to our house to view it. My wife and I walked over to escort her to my parents’ home. Even then Johannesburg was a dangerous city, not a place for an elderly lady to be walking around at night. I remember saying to her, “Eta, aren’t you afraid to be living in such a big house all alone and without even a security fence or a burglar alarm?” She replied without the slightest hesitation, “Robbie, wait until you and Annie have seen the film. Then you will understand. Where I have been and what I have experienced has made me afraid of nothing! And besides, if I move out of here, who will take care of my Lettie and the other black staff? They are too old to find jobs, and no one will take care of them.”

Watching that film left us all stunned and shocked. It lasted a good hour and a half during which Eta recounted the tragic events of her life to the young interviewer.

She had lived in Liebau with her parents when in 1941, the Germans invaded Latvia and marched into her town. Almost immediately all the Jewish men were rounded up including her father, and her husband of barely two years, Shmuel Boyarski. There is footage shown at Yad Vashem that is played over and over again of a group of men in
Liebau being chased by the German soldiers and their Latvian accomplices. They have their hands in the air and are finally lined up in front of a large trench where they are mowed down into a ditch. One of those men was Eta’s husband.

She, her mother and a number of other Jews ended up in the local ghetto. They tried to escape deportation, and she, her mother and three others including a small child managed to find a hiding place in a secret closet below a staircase.

“We were terrified that they would discover us,” Eta recounts in the video. “The mother of the child begged us to let her hide with us. We were reluctant to accept her because of the child. She begged and begged us and promised that she would keep the child quiet. The soldiers came looking for us and the child suddenly lost control and coughed and we were discovered...”

In the video, Eta confesses that she could no longer believe in God.

“When you’ve seen little children grabbed by their limbs and thrown like chickens onto the back of a truck full of other screaming injured whimpering children, it’s hard to believe in anything afterwards.”

Eta was taken by cattle car to Stutthof. She was a seamstress by training, and had incredibly good eyesight.

“Next to Stutthof was a German armaments factory. My eyesight kept me alive. I was taken together with a number of other Jewish women prisoners to assemble bombs. This involved inserting very intricate wired circuits into the bombs. Our only way of getting revenge on the Germans was to sabotage the equipment. The equipment had to be placed in a box with a lid. We would bang down the lid of every fifth box in an attempt to damage the filaments so that the bombs would be rendered useless. Getting caught would have meant certain death.”

Eta shared her bunk with her two camp inmates, Essie and Fanny. There is a YouTube video made by Fanny Leibovitz Krasner in which she describes how “cockroaches and bugs rained down on us from the wooden planks above.” Fanny was also born and raised in Liebau, and now lives in San Diego. Her book Memories, Miracles and Meaning published in November 2018 gives an account of her childhood, deportation, incarceration and miraculous liberation. The three women became close friends.

Ironically, Essie Thwaites and Masha Greenbaum did not know each other, yet they were in the same camp and shared a common story with a good ending – both were liberated by the British army, and both ended up marrying British soldiers.

Essie married Yorkshireman James Thwaites from the city of Carlisle in the north of England. He found Essie wandering around scavenging for food, weighing less than 70 lbs. and wearing two odd shoes. Jimmy helped her and managed to smuggle in extra food rations. The two formed a close relationship, and Jimmy fell in love with Essie and wanted to marry her.

At first she declined because Jimmy was not Jewish. In the end she received an immigration visa for South Africa, and agreed to marry Jimmy on condition that he accompany her to South Africa, where she wanted to join her sister and her family.

Instead of returning to Britain, Jimmy agreed to immigrate to South Africa. After they were married, the couple settled in Johannesburg and moved to our neighborhood. They had one child, a son whom they named Malcom. Essie wanted to bring him up as a Jew and Jimmy consented. He never converted but remained a loyal and devoted husband and father.

The Thwaites lived on Buffalo Road quite near us, and our families were close. At that time my grandfather lived with us. He was observant but we were not. On Saturdays my grandfather would go to the local synagogue, walk home and sit on the veranda drinking his tea.

Every Shabbat Jimmy would walk over to visit him. I have clear memories of how he would approach the front gate and discreetly stub out his cigarette so as not to offend my grandpa. He was a true gentleman in every way. Over the years he would travel back to the UK to visit his Christian family in Yorkshire. Nevertheless, he remained an integral part of the Jewish community in Johannesburg.

Masha Greenbaum’s story is equally amazing. She, her mother and sister were sent from Stutthof to Bergen-Belsen and the horrors of a lice-infested camp where she contracted typhus. Her mother took care of her with virtually no medication, just doses of boiling water and wet rags until April 15, 1945, when the British forces arrived. After weeks of being in the camp hospital, she began to regain her strength. It was then that she met Abraham Greenbaum, a young British officer who “fell in love with her instantly,” despite her appearance and shaved head. They were married and lived in Mexico, where they contributed greatly to the Jewish community in Mexico City. After returning to London for a number of years, they eventually fulfilled their lifelong dream and made aliyah. Today Masha is widowed and lives with her daughter and son-in-law, Ettie and David Kornbluth, in the German Colony in Jerusalem.
The trial in Hamburg of Bruno D. will be nothing like the sensational Eichmann trial.

In what will be one of the last cases against Nazi-era crimes, the former soldier is accused of being an SS guard in Stutthof and of being involved in killings between August 1944 and April 1945. In August, the German daily Die Welt reported that he had acknowledged his presence at the camp, and said he knew that people were pushed into gas chambers, and that he had seen bodies being burned in the crematorium. However, he argued that this did not amount to guilt. Anyone who listens to or reads the graphic eyewitness accounts of sadism, cruelty and torture as described by Masha Greenbaum, Eta Cohen and Fanny Leibovits Krasner in their testimonies will find his arguments nothing short of contemptuous. These survivors and their testimonies need to be heard and remembered so that the next generation can also become witnesses.


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