cohen, barbara schechter
Cohen, Barbara (Basha Schechter)
Krakow, Stanislavov, Bukaczowce, Poland; Durnholz, Stuttgart Displaced Persons Camp, Germany
Basha Schechter (Barbara Cohen) was born September 10, 1941 in Bukaczowce, Poland (now part of Ukraine), the only child of Philip and Jean Hirsch Schechter.
Philip was born to Bertha and Joseph Schechter in Krakow, where Joseph and the family worked in a produce store. Philip graduated from the university as a lawyer “which helped us very much during the war.” He had six sisters and five of them – Bronia, Helinka, Mania [Lewinger], Fela [Karay], and Frania – survived the war in hiding or in camps, “which was like a miracle.”
After he graduated, Philip had an assignment in Stanislavov and met Jean Hirsch, a bookkeeper. “Love at first sight.” Jean was the daughter of Charlotte and Leon Hirsch, an upholsterer. They had three other children – Rachela, Karol, and Malwina – all of whom perished during the war, along with all four grandparents.
“I was born, certainly not in the best of times, but the worst of times. But I strongly feel that the fact that I was born during the war gave my parents an enormous amount of courage and bravery…. I never knew my grandparents. In fact, for years I didn’t feel like I was a survivor because I have no memory of the war, absolutely none. But my parents talked about it very much. They talked about their suffering, their hunger, their fear during the war…. Later, when I came to the United States and started school, I had issues with the language, the children, the culture, but I never shared them with my parents because they were the ones who had all the memories and I had none from the war.
“As I got older and started thinking about things even more, I decided that I certainly am a survivor. I didn’t have my grandparents with me or my family and I went from place to place with my family in hiding. Half the time my dad wasn’t with us. So, I realized that I’m definitely a survivor and I felt a great motivation to start speaking at the Holocaust Center and in schools because of some of the things that are happening today, like Holocaust deniers, the shooting in the synagogue in Pittsburgh, and anti-Semitism.”
Barbara regrets that she did not ask enough questions of her parents, but shares her family story as told to her by them and through photographs. “Before the war, my parents had a good life. My dad was a great outdoorsman and skier. My mother had blonde hair and blue eyes and spoke perfect German. My dad’s education, my mother’s looks and her ability to speak German helped save our lives.” They were put into a ghetto – perhaps Stanislavov, Bukaczowce, or Krakow ghetto – and all were forced to wear the armbands. “My dad had friends on the outside from his college days and he received papers that he forged himself. Their new names were Frank and Janina Rogalski and, with help, they were able to escape the ghetto.
“My father knew a non-Jewish farmer in the area. He tutored their children and went there and begged for food and a hiding place. Although anyone that would be caught hiding a Jew would be instantly killed or taken to Auschwitz, the farmer hid us under the kitchen floor. One day, there was a rumor that there were Jews on the property and the Nazis came and wanted to inspect the area. We were in the basement and my mother said that I chose that moment to be hungry and was ready to open my mouth and scream. She had to put a pillow over my mouth. But we were very lucky, another miracle that saved her life…. And so, we were told that we had to leave.”
Barbara’s parents decided to separate in order to move around more easily. “My dad remained in Poland as a Polish laborer not under the auspices of the Germans. My mother was completely terrified what to do with a baby. She was going to go back to Stanislavov; if she had, I don’t think I would be here talking about our history…. Luckily someone told her to go to the local church courtyard where a German truck came every day to get workers to go back to Germany. With her blonde hair and blue eyes and her ability to speak German and our false papers we were taken to Durnholz, Germany.
“My mother had many hard jobs, but was fired because she couldn’t take care of me, feed me, and diaper me. As luck would have it, a German woman named Sophie Wagner offered to take care of me and she gave my mother visiting privileges. She was very, very good to me and gave me toys and clothes and fed me very well. Little by little, I was calling her “Mutti,” mother in German, and I was forgetting who my mother was. One day she came to visit and Sophie told her, ‘No more visits.’ My mother was beside herself and begged for one more visit…. So, now my mother comes for that last time but she has a plan. It’s towards the end of the war and she begs to take me for a little walk. Sophie agrees and, as soon as we are out of sight, she just picks me up and runs, while I screamed for my “Mutti.” My mother was very brave and saved my life. She could have left me there too.
“And so now, we are on the road with thousands of refugees and arrive in Dresden, which was bombed by our allies. My mother said that the bombs were so close to us that that was another miracle that we survived.” They ended up in a Displaced Persons camp in Stuttgart and her father was able to find them through the Red Cross. “Because of his education and the fact that he was a lawyer, he was appointed as an overseer in Stuttgart and we were treated very well.”
They had relatives in New Jersey who sponsored them and they arrived in New York on May 11, 1946, on board the Marine Flasher, the first ship of refugees that came to the United States. Barbara graduated from the University of Michigan as a physical therapist and is the proud mother of Ron Cohen and Debbie (Steve) Gordon and the grandmother of Eli, Rachel, Max, and Julia.
Barbara went back to Poland with her parents in the 80’s. “They did not want to go to Poland. They did not want to be reminded of Poland. But because of my lack of memory, I pushed, insisted, and used all my childhood wiles to get them to go… and I am very glad that we were able to go as a family.” She has also traveled to Poland and Israel with a group of students from the Frankel Hebrew Academy as a guest survivor “to show them what happened in Poland and why Israel is so important. If we had Israel during the war, there would be many more Jewish survivors that would be able to come to Israel.
“In the survivor community, one of our fears is that we don’t want to be forgotten. We want our children to remember the legacy, where they came from, that we are survivors, that we are strong people. And I want them to also know the Jewish history, not just the Holocaust, because we’ve been survivors for thousands of years from the Spanish Inquisition to being expelled from France and England. And if they understand the history, I think they will understand the importance of Israel too.”
Date of Interview: October 11, 2019
Length of Interview: 30 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus