Missing the magic bus

Leslie Cohen's book 'Trapped Inside the Story' was inspired by her neighbor's experiences during the Holocaust.

Leslie Cohen (photo credit: courtesy)
Leslie Cohen
(photo credit: courtesy)
In 1979, newlyweds Leslie and Mitchell Cohen were backpacking around the world. They escaped the cold of the European winter to spend some time volunteering at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, intending to continue their adventures on the Magic Bus from Athens to Delhi, a ride that could be completed for $50. Just before they set out, the shah of Iran was deposed, the Middle East was in a state of unrest and the bus service was canceled.
The Cohens are still at Ein Hashofet.
Leslie Cohen studied cultural anthropology and received a BA from Queens College and an MA from Hunter College.
She then worked for three years at the University of Alaska.
“It was too cold, I couldn’t handle it, and I left a job I really loved,” she says. Looking for a warmer climate, she relocated to California.
She met her future husband at a happy hour in the singles accommodation in California the night she moved in.
“He was tall, dark and handsome, and it was love at first sight,” she recalls. “We moved in together and a year and a half later got married.”
Mitchell Cohen was a tree trimmer for the State of California, and they both quit their jobs to start their world trip.
During their initial stay at Ein Hashofet, they felt at home, and in 1980 their aliya was official.
“Mitchell is an outdoors person and loves animals,” says Leslie Cohen. “He got a job milking the cows and has worked ever since in agriculture.”
The kibbutz was in urgent need of an English teacher, so after completing a teachers’ course at Oranim Academic College, she started teaching English in the kibbutz children’s houses. Later, she was on the staff of the English department at Oranim, and today she teaches English at the Ruppin Academic Business Center, as well as at an alternative high school near the kibbutz. Cohen is enthusiastic about her work at Ruppin, calling it “by far the best college I’ve ever taught.”
Parallel to her work as a teacher, Cohen wrote poetry, short stories, articles and book reviews published in Israel and overseas. She is an occasional contributor to The Jerusalem Post.
Her anthology, Facets of the Poet, was published in 2001, and she contributed a short story to the Simcha publication Jewish Love Stories for Kids. At one time, she was secretary of Voices Israel Poets in English Society and had poetry published in their annual anthologies.
But her life’s work, which took over 10 years to complete, was her book Trapped Inside the Story, published by Level 4 Press in California and just out in Hebrew by Moreshet of Tel Aviv.
When Cohen was teaching in the children’s houses not long after her aliya, one of the sixth-graders invited his mother to speak on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The mother was Naomi Kalsky, who became a leading Holocaust educator in Israel and Poland and was a neighbor of Cohen’s.
“I was so inspired by her story,” says Cohen, “but it took me many years to get writing experience, be sufficiently fluent in Hebrew to interview her, and then pluck up the courage to ask her if I could write a book about her.”
The response was positive. By then, Kalsky’s children had grown up, and one was living in Los Angeles.
“I am not able to tell my grandchildren there my story,” she said, and was happy that at last it would be written in English.
The tapes of many years of interviews (mostly on Friday afternoons when both women finished work) accumulated in a large shoe-box.
“I had so little free time to write, I was working fulltime and I had three children with no family help,” says Cohen.
Finally Trapped Inside the Story was written and published, and now Cohen is busy giving lectures about her book and attending book launches in Israel and in the US. The Hebrew translation is now being promoted for school groups and universities learning about the Holocaust.
The English version is being used in high schools and colleges in the US.
The protagonist, Naomi, born Sonya Hebenstreit, grew up in Lvov in a large and loving extended family. By the time she was 12, all of her family, friends and neighbors had disappeared, rounded up by Nazis.
She was left alone in the world. Miraculously Naomi survived. She had Slavic coloring, and having had a Ukrainian housekeeper over the years, she adopted her characteristics. She lived in a Grimm’s fairy-tale world and used her imagination to create a new identity, which saved her until the end of the war. In this nightmare period of her life, although she depended on this fictional existence, she felt that she was trapped inside the stories – hence the book’s title.
The Cohens came to the kibbutz as newlyweds, and their two sons and daughter were born at Ein Hashofet.
While Leslie accepted the traditional communal child care system when her first child was born, she was glad when it changed to home sleeping.
“On one hand, the old system gives parents more freedom, but anyone who had more than one child spent all evening running from one dormitory to the other,” she says.
Recently her 91-year-old mother made aliya, and she now lives at the kibbutz. Cohen is an only child and was concerned about her aging mother as she became increasingly frail.
“It was a huge upheaval for her to give up her lovely home and move here, but at least we can take care of her and she is not alone,” she says. “She had lost many of her friends and had no family left there any more. I was flying out to the US twice a year just to keep an eye on her.”
The Cohens’ daughter still lives at the kibbutz, and a son lives in New York. Tragically their middle child, Eli, died four years ago.
“He suffered from depression throughout his childhood,” Leslie Cohen recalls. “Most of the professionals who saw him failed to provide the correct treatment.”
She says he had wanted to go into the army, but it was not the right place for him. “The army psychiatrists did not handle his case correctly.”
Eli committed suicide just before his 21st birthday.
Cohen’s next project is to study for a doctorate combining Chinese and Western medicine for the treatment of depression.
Asked if she is happy with the choices they made when they missed that Magic Bus to India so many years ago, Cohen replies without ambivalence.
“I was very lucky,” she says of her kibbutz life. “I was always able to work in jobs that I enjoyed, I had the freedom to travel out of the kibbutz. I made a lot of friends among the English teachers in the workplace.”
Many new immigrants find it difficult to adjust to the insular working and living conditions of the kibbutz lifestyle. But Cohen was able to combine her academic abilities with her social integration into kibbutz society.
“I had the best of both worlds,” she continues. “I was able to become a valued member of the kibbutz. There was a need for an English teacher for the younger children, and I was appreciated for my skills.”
Looking out onto the pastoral gardens of Ein Hashofet and the Menashe forests beyond, all green and blooming in the spring after the recent heavy rains, it does indeed seem that Cohen has every reason to be content with the choices she and her husband made over 30 years ago.