Kohen, Sheri (Yardena) Lebovic
Sevlus, Czechoslovakia; Auschwitz, Stutthof; Sherokopas, Praga Warsaw, Poland
Shindel (Sheri) Lebovic was born November 7, 1925, in Sevlus, Czechoslovakia, the fourth of nine surviving children of Dora and Shmuel (Samuel) Lebovic – Ignatz (Yitzchak Lebovic), Rachel (Langbort), Cecilia (Carmela Friedman), Shindel (Sheri Yardena Kohen), Malka (Margaret Goldschmid), Edith, Kathy, Sandor, and Moritz.
“Life was very poor. But in those days, we didn’t know any better so we were happy, no matter what.” Her father was a manager in a yard goods store and they lived in a large house with their maternal grandparents, Ester and Mordechi Rosner. After my aunts married, they moved away. “We were a very tight, close family, and religious.” Sheri started attending the Czech school until the Germans came in 1938 and no longer allowed the Jewish children to attend. “Plus, we had to help out my parents. Each of us had little side jobs after school. My older sister, Carmela, worked in engineering; my other sister worked for a dentist; and I helped out in a store, in the evenings.
They did not feel anti-Semitism under the Czechs. “But when the Hungarians marched into our city, trouble started. They threw snowballs in the windows of Jewish homes and at the Jewish stores, breaking the windows. Some Ukrainian people living up in the hills were really anti-Semitic…. I remember one instance when I saw my father crying. When I asked him what’s wrong, he said, ‘Very bad times are coming for the Jewish people.’ I didn’t know what he meant. I was young, what did I care. Bad times for us… what could be bad times, we are free people.
“We had a huge garden and at the end of the garden there was another street where my two aunts lived. I was visiting them. All of a sudden, the police come with bullhorns and said that all the Jewish people should remain in their homes and are restricted. I got so scared, I started running home. Nobody knew what was happening or what’s going to happen. And then the Germans marched in and they were very good together with the Hungarians…. They put us in a ghetto in Sevlus. There was one exit from the ghetto and there were Hungarian police and Germans to keep us from getting out from the ghetto…. Our house fell into the ghetto area. We had to board up the entrance and the windows of our house. They threw out all the furniture from the rooms and we slept on the floor. At least 100 people were housed in our place. In each room were two families and each family had plenty of children. The dentist my sister worked for slept in the same room with us; they had seven children and we were eight because my brother was in the labor camp already.
“We were a few days in ghetto and all of a sudden, they gathered us and took us in groups to the big sanctuary synagogue next to the ghetto. They examined us, each and every one, on the table where they used to put the sefer torah on the bima. The women, all over, that they didn’t hide some gold…. They put my father to be in charge of there being no papers in our backyard, no garbage. We were so afraid because every morning the Germans came to check if it is clean. How can it be clean with so many people? One bathroom, outside in the backyard, and no shower.
“One non-Jewish neighbor, Wilma Paladi, remained in her house in the ghetto because they were farmers and had lots of cows. We were very close; we didn’t know the difference. We grew up next to each other. They had two boys and we thought we are brothers and sisters…. Of course, we had to wear the yellow stars. One night, I went to her for some milk for my little baby sisters and there were four Hungarian police people there. I got so scared and turned the sweater so they shouldn’t see the star. But she got really scared because they could get killed too if they helped Jewish people. So, she called me and took me in the other room and made me run home. The next day she told me the police were looking for me. ‘Where is the little blonde girl?’ Because her niece was there too, she said, ‘That’s my niece, I sent her home because she lives far away. I didn’t want her to walk too late by herself.’
“Then they took us to the camps. They divided up the people in three groups. We saw my two aunts, my mother’s sisters, walk by our house. Each of them had a little girl. Their husbands weren’t home; they were in the Hungarian working camps…. With their rifles, the Germans took us to the train station, walking. If people couldn’t walk, they put them on stretchers and carried them…. We were I think the second group. My grandma was with us. They took us to the train station and into the cattle cars…. And then the trouble started. There was no bathroom, no water, no nothing. And my little sister had to go to the restroom. They were babies, Edith and Kathy, 3 ½ and 1 ½ years. She had to go and my father wiped her and there was a little window that was boarded up. But in between, there were little holes and he threw out this little piece of paper that wiped this baby. They stopped the train and the German opened up the door, ‘Who threw out something here?’ Our father says, ‘The baby had to go and I wiped and I threw it out.’ ‘Soon as we get to the place, you are going to be shot.’ My mother passed out and everybody was crying. We didn’t know where we were going. We were just sitting there like herrings together. That’s how they took us to Auschwitz.
“We got to Auschwitz; right away they separated my mother with the two little girls and my grandmother. My grandmother was holding one and my mother was holding the other baby. My mother turned around and says to my older sister, ‘Watch the children,’ me and my little sister. And that’s it, no more we saw them…. They gave them towels and soap and made them undress and went right with the babies straight into the gas chamber. And they kept on telling us, ‘You see the smoke? That’s your parents.’
“My father went on the other side with the two little boys, Moritz and Sandor. We saw him one time. He was already in the striped thing and didn’t recognize us because we were all shaved. We were shouting, ‘Abba, Abba, it’s us.’ He was holding the two little boys and then they took away the boys from him. They didn’t survive…. One of my little brothers was in the gas chamber when we got liberated, but he didn’t have enough time to jump out the window because all the kids stormed to the window and he fell back and that was it. He was already dead.
“I was with my two sisters, my little sister Margaret and my older sister Cecelia (Carmela). Margaret was a sick little girl and we had a hard time saving her because they didn’t save little kids…. We did everything to try to survive, to fight for life….
“I always volunteered for work to get out of Auschwitz. We didn’t know if there are worse places too, but you never know…. They chased us out at four in the morning for appel, counting us at about 10 o’clock. It was so cold we were holding onto each other for a little warmth. And then they came to count us, five-five-five-five to a row, five-five-five-five. I stayed always number one in the fifth row….
“One time they locked all the doors from the barracks and took us to a spot and the German came to select us. We had to undress and put our hands up so they could see our ribs, if you were very skinny. Of my mazel, they picked me out to go to a wurst factory with about two dozen girls and the rest were told to go back to the barracks. All of a sudden, Yudit, the Jewish girl in charge of the block, tells me, in Yiddish, to run. Run. I said, ‘I know there are towers and the police will be there. They are going to kill me.’ ‘Better if they kill you, run.’ After I got back to the barracks, Yudit told me, ‘They wanted to take you out to the Russian front for the soldiers, and you will never come back from there. That’s why I told you it’s better to die here than to go there.’
“Another time they were picking people to go to farmers. I said okay, farmers are good. We are going to have at least food. They took us to Stutthof, the number one station. That was the worst that you ever could imagine. Two SS put us in this cattle car. Pushed us up to the wall. Straight hands down. Head straight. Next one, next one, next one. The last one they pushed in like a piece of meat to be tight. We couldn’t even faint because there was no room to fall down…. They locked the big door. It got dark. No windows. Nothing. Screaming. Praying. Nothing helped…. Early morning, we arrived to Stutthof. They opened the car and we were blinded by the light. SS standing with their rifles on us, with big German Shepherds, like we would do something. We had nothing. No help. No clothing. Nothing…. They took us in a huge empty room. We had hardly room to sit down on the floor. All of a sudden, they open the doors, and pour boiling water on to us while we were sitting on the floor. Just to have fun…. Then they put us in a barracks. There were wooden bunkbeds, but no mattress, no pillows, no nothing. One blanket. The blanket was moving with lice. So many lice….
“From there they divided us in groups to go to farmers. We went to Sherokopas which was in Poland, but the owner was a German. We slept in a huge barn on the straw. The roof was halfway broken. Many mornings we woke up covered with snow. No water. No bathroom. No nothing. And this German was such a big anti-Semite, such a bad person. They made us go into this water where the cows come in from the field; it was all mud. They made us to go in there and wash up. When you came out you were black from the mud. We marched every morning into the field. We were doing stupid things, digging trenches for the tanks to hide in case of war. Just to keep us.
“The Polish guy, who lived on the premises and was working for the German, got to like me very much. He had no children and wanted to adopt me, but was afraid to even mention it to the German because he might get in deep trouble. I said, ‘No. I’ve got two sisters. I cannot leave them. Even if they let me go, I would not go.’ So, he used to bring me garlic to kill the bacillus. And he brought me old men’s boots and some rags to wrap around my foot. There were no socks. No nothing. The SS wanted to take them away from me but he begged them to let me keep it.
“From there other farmers came to borrow a few workers. One time, one came and needed five girls to help out. So, my mazel, they pick me and I picked my two sisters and two girls from my hometown. The farmgirl got to like me and gave me and my sisters a little food too. Nothing special, but better…. Another time, they picked me for a farm where I had to go with two huge horses, digging out the potatoes while lying on my stomach…. And then one time, we had to put dried hay bales up in the barn with a fork. Imagine, it was so heavy. We have to lift it and put it up there all the way to the top…. So, I worked very hard to survive. Very hard. Very hard.”
“When we were on the death march from Auschwitz, every day we lost people. We went in the woods in Poland, the snow was up to the waist. We were without hair, without clothes, with nothing. Whoever sat down, they pulled to the side and put a little snow on them and we kept on marching…. My older sister understood what was going on and didn’t want to survive. We did the death march for weeks, and she just wanted to sit down. But I dragged her even though I was skinny. We didn’t see food. We didn’t shower a whole year…. And my little sister, I always told her to be in the front so I could see her…. So, it was very tough for us to do this hard work.
“One night on the death march, we stopped to sleep in a barn in a Polish town not far from Krakow. We heard shooting. We didn’t know what was going on. All of a sudden, the doors opened and we see Russian soldiers. And when they saw us, they wanted to throw us big salamis. But whoever ate it, got diarrhea and died right away because their stomachs were not used to food.
“We were in this little town for a little bit and a family took us in to sleep until we could see what we are going to do…. We were seven girls with one mother and we just went to a backyard, took a wagon and horses. The mother sat in the front driving and we sat in the back. We were tired, cold, freezing; it was March, April…. We had to be scared from the Russians too because they raped the girls; they didn’t care who it was. We used to hide in chicken coops and all kinds of places. We were so afraid….
“One time, a Russian officer stopped us and took away one of our horses out and put in a blind horse. The horse was flying and she couldn’t stop him. We thought we were all dead. All of a sudden, another Russian officer stopped the horses and told us not to be afraid; ‘I am your kind.’ He was a Jew and took us to a big house and they took us in…. We were so happy we were under a roof until, in the middle of the night, Russian wagons came into the backyard and put up a military kitchen and put all their horses in the barn. We hid in the basement until daytime and sneaked out from there. It was really, really hard for us because we were so naïve, didn’t know what to do, where to go, which way to turn.
“Finally, we arrived to Praga, Warsaw and found a house that was bombed; the roof was not there but there was a floor. There were many Polish people already there from the concentration camp. But Polish people didn’t like us because they took the Polish before us. It’s not our fault. We didn’t want to do that. They were really, really mean to us and said, ‘When you were still eating gefilte fish, we were already in the camp.’… We didn’t know what to do. We laid down on broken-down doors on the floor. My little sister was like a little herring. My older sister all of a sudden passes out and got typhus. They took away my sister. I didn’t know where they took her. I didn’t know where to look for her. I didn’t know what to do. My little sister and I were sitting and crying and crying. All of a sudden, a Polish soldier comes in and asks why are you crying? I said, ‘I cry because they took away my sister and I don’t know where she is. I can’t go home without her. I saved her until now.’ So, he felt so very sorry for me and said he was going to find my sister.
“A couple days later, he found her in a hospital that you could not go in there because it’s contagious. So, he says to me, in Yiddish, ‘I’m going to take you to this place where your sister is.’ I don’t know the man. Where is he going to take me in a big city like this? He could take me anywhere. I was afraid to go with him…. We went by streetcar to the hospital and they wouldn’t let me in, but they let him go. I stayed in the backyard, downstairs. And he went upstairs and my sister was sleeping…. When she woke up, they called him and he went up again and they brought her to the window for me to see her. And I was waving to her from downstairs and I was crying. I said, ‘Carmela, I am afraid of this man. I don’t know who he is and he comes everyday and gives me money and tells me to buy milk and butter for my little sister. And I don’t know who he is. I don’t know what to do. I am so afraid of him.’ So, my sister says to me, ‘Don’t be afraid. Just stay. Don’t go with him.’ I continued to take the money and I was still afraid.
“Soon Carmela came back and, sure enough, I got sick with the typhus. But they didn’t take me to the hospital. I was laying there on the floor, on the door. I couldn’t walk. My sister tried to teach me back to walk a little bit and slowly I got better…. A couple of days later, two nice young men arrived looking for Czech people. They talked to us in Czech so we weren’t afraid of them. They told us that there was a train in Warsaw that was going to gather the Czech people from all over Poland and Germany. We hired a Polish man with a two-wheel wagon that he was pulling like a horse. We paid him all the zlotys, the money, we had and he took us to the train.
“On the train, my sister was really thirsty. I think it was in Krakow. She wanted to go drink some water and went down from the train for water. The train was ready to leave and my sister was nowhere to be seen. I screamed for them not to let the train leave and they pushed her up on the train. I told her not to do things like this and she said, ‘I don’t care.’ I said, ‘You care. We are going home.’
“We got to one of the border cities, got off the train, and were so happy to see a train going to our city…. As the train slowed down in a small town not far from our city, I jumped off because a Russian soldier wanted to take me to Russia. I came up from the ditch and walked about two hours to my city… My two sisters stayed on the train. Carmela got off in another city, a good hour walking from Sevlus. Margaret continued on to Romania because one of her friends went there.
“I came home and my brother Ignatz and my sister Rachel were there. My brother had fixed up one room in the house and tried to help people who came back and didn’t have anywhere to stay. So, he fixed up and put in some beds for them to sleep.” He didn’t want to leave the house and remained in Sevlus.
Sheri and her two sisters went to Prague, Czechoslovakia, where they had two uncles. They joined Zionist groups, like Hashomer Hatzair and Mizrachi, and decided to go to Palestine. “We were young and we were organized and we left from there illegally by train. The Haganah was guiding us. We did not know who it was but they were there…. We got to Linz, Austria, and were sitting on the train and the British made us hold because we didn’t have papers. So, the Haganah guy told us to jump out of the train through the window. Then we sat on the tracks and didn’t want to move. So, they escorted us into the Rothschild building in Vienna, Austria, and from there, they took us Linz, Steyr, all over in Austria. I met my husband, Zalman (Zoli) Kohen in Austria and we were on all of the same trains. We went from country to country –Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy – until we got to Palestine.
“And then when we got there, the British caught us, put us on military ships, and took us back to Cyprus, where we were locked up for two years. It wasn’t anything special; they didn’t gas the people, but you were also watched from high by the soldiers and the tanks were constantly going around and around the camps. So, it was very tough, very tough from the beginning to the end….
“We went to Israel in 1948 when the state became Israel. And then started a hard time in Israel too. A new country. There was tzena (austerity) and restrictions with the food and everything. It wasn’t easy. They put us in Arab villages and the Arab came at night and we got scared. So, my sister took us to their room in Givatayim, Ramat Gan. One room. No kitchen, nothing. And from there we went to a little barracks until we got housing. So, it was hard before and after, all the way through was rough, rough, rough.”
Sheri and Zoli had two sons, Eddie and Jerry; both were born in Israel. They emigrated to the United States in 1960, where, “from day one I stepped in this country I was working. You name it. I didn’t miss nothing. Wherever I could earn a dollar, I was there. I even went to school and learned how to be a beautician. I did everything – catering, kosher catering, butcher shop.”
Sheri says that she got her strength from “willpower, willpower.” She never talked to her own children about her experiences “because it is so hard for me to talk about it. And they wanted me so badly I should come here and talk with the people. But it’s just not so easy to live through all that time again.” Nevertheless, now she wants young people today to “know all the things that happened and they should just appreciate the life they’ve got and God forbid nothing like this should ever happen to anybody. Because it’s inhumane and it’s something that you can’t even describe in words. All the things that I am telling you is a fraction of it.”
Date of Interview: September 23, 2019
Length of Interview: 67 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus