Judith Becker was eight years old, the youngest of three children, when the Russians occupied her hometown of Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania in 1939. (Her father died in 1938.)
Then in June 1941 at the age of 10 she was at a Russian summer camp:
The Russians used to send a whole class away for two weeks at a time. I was away at this camp when the Germans marched into Lithuania in June, 1941. The non-Jews were informed that no harm would come to them. The Jewish children were immediately separated from their non-Jewish friends.
[PZM note: The following is the part of Judith Cohen’s account that has stayed with me all these years. Whenever I look at my own diamond ring, I wonder whether I would have had the foresight to have done what her mother did.]
One evening my counselor awakened me in the middle of the night to tell me a man had a letter for me from my mother. The letter was written in Yiddish, and informed me that she had given this man her diamond ring and I was to obey him completely.
The peasant put Judith into an empty sack and filled it with hay and potatoes. He warned her that making a sound could cost her life as well as his. He drove his horse and wagon all night until arriving at his house, where he tied her up in the basement to ensure she would not run away.
They continued the next day. “Every time the wagon stopped, I felt that this was the last breath I’d ever take.” When they reached Judith’s home, her mother hugged her and broke out crying.
Later we heard by word of mouth that all of the Jewish children with whom I had shared a cabin had been taken out and shot by the Nazis.
What Judith could not know was that her mother’s foresight was only the first of a series of miracles – luck – chance that would enable Judith to ultimately survive.
A few weeks later in the middle of the night there was a knock at their door, the windows were smashed, and the Gestapo dragged them outside and threw them into trucks. “Our Christian neighbors cheered and threw rocks and stones at us.”
As the hundreds of trucks carrying Jews crossed the bridge to Shlabotka (Slobodka), she saw the students of a yeshiva carrying Sefer Torahs in their arms.
The students were thrown into a large pit and shot. As long as I live, I will never forget the moans and screams of these boys, and the men, women, and children who were thrown in with them.
When the trucks came to a stop at a group of homes, the Jews were taken off the trucks and told to take the homes.
As we ran towards the homes, they began shooting at us – several hundred lives were lost. The commandment laughed, ‘You didn’t expect such fine homes, did you?’
Judith, her older sister Rachel, brother Abe and mother Mina were now in the ghetto of Shlabotka surrounded by barbed wire and heavily guarded by SS troops. Five or six families lived in one room.
Hundreds died of starvation in the ghetto, and then came the day near the end of 1942 when Judith, her sister and mother were sent to Auschwitz. They survived the selections for the gas chamber, and in the summer or early fall of 1944 were transported to another concentration camp – Stutthof.
One day my mother was taken to the gas chamber. I clung to her as she was herded along with the others. A guard approached us and said to me, ‘You are too young to die.’ Raising his gun, he told me that if I could get out of his range before he counted to 10, I could live.
It was terrible leaving my mother like that. I remember running so very fast, hearing my mother’s last cry to me to run faster, and I saw her no more.
The death marches from the concentration camps began in the winter of 1944-45. “Anyone who could not walk was shot.” Judith’s sister Rachel had contracted typhus, and Judith “practically carried my sister the whole way.”
As the Allies flew over bombing, Judith fell into a ditch with her sister clinging to her, and by a miracle the Germans marched by without seeing them. In the morning the sisters were found by an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a Russian – POWs working on a farm owned by a top SS official.
These POWs told Judith and her sister that a price had been put on their heads and their description was being circulated. The Russian cut off their yellow stars and told the sisters to pretend they were Lithuanians who had escaped from the Elbe River.
The POWs then told the sisters to go to a nearby nunnery or the SS official on returning would have taken them to the umshlagpaltz, where everyone on the death march was taken to be massacred.
The nuns took care of the sisters even when Rachel, in her delirium from typhus, spoke Yiddish, thus revealing the sisters were Jews. But under pressure to become Catholic, and locked in their room at night supposedly for their protection, the sisters escaped through a window.
By now Judith had come down with typhus. Her sister took her to a hospital in Danzig where Judith was able to pass as a Lithuanian Catholic while Rachel found work in Danzig.
When Judith recovered, her sister brought her to the farm where Rachel worked. The German woman farm owner grossly mistreated the sisters (and was later tried by a Danish court for her inhumanity to them and sentenced to a jail term).
The woman took her own children and the sisters on a boat to Copenhagen. En route to Bremen the boat was torpedoed and sunk. The sisters clung to a plank of wood for hours until rescued and taken to Copenhagen, where they were placed in a temporary camp for German citizens.
I remember walking through the town of Swinege and seeing a woman working in her flower garden. I stopped and stood for a while watching her. When she spotted my interest, she stopped working and walked over to the fence. I asked if there were any Jews in Denmark.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You Germans tried to kill them, but we saved many of their lives. Soon the war will be over, and you will be in concentration camps and the Jews will be free.’ Her husband came out of the house yelling at her, and pulled her back inside. I was much too frightened to tell her at that moment that I was Jewish.
Judith and her sister were liberated on May 5, 1945. The Red Cross asked if any of the people in the temporary camp were not German citizens. When Judith and her sister responded to the Red Cross, the Germans said the sisters were lying. The sisters signed their names in Hebrew to prove their identity. Later the sisters learned their brother Abe, who they thought dead, had been liberated by the Allies at Dachau.
I returned to the Danish woman who had rebuked me. She broke down crying. Her son had been hung in Copenhagen for saving two Jewish families.
The sisters spent 4 ½ years in Denmark after the war.
I cannot say enough about the Danish people. They saved countless Jews during the war while constantly risking their own lives.
Click here to read the formal proposal for the Holocaust memoir SAVIORS AND SAVIORS, in which the above firsthand account is included.
© 2017 Miller Mosaic LLC
Phyllis Zimbler Miller (@ZimblerMiller) has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School and is the author of fiction and nonfiction books/ebooks. Phyllis is available by skype for book group discussions and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Her Kindle fiction ebooks may be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszimblermiller — and her Kindle nonfiction ebooks may also be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszmiller