World leaders must do better to avoid another major war, says Holocaust survivor

Nearly 80 years on, Ruth Cohen tells Zayed University event of her enduring sense of humanity despite harrowing childhood

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World leaders need to do more to avoid another potential world war, a Holocaust survivor told an event in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

Nearly 80 years on, Ruth Cohen says she still has nightmares about the horrors she and her family were subjected to in one of the largest Nazi concentration camps.

Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, more than a million of whom were young children, during the Holocaust, which lasted from 1941 until the end of the Second World War in 1945.

Speaking to The National at an event held at Zayed University to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Ms Cohen, 92, said lessons of the past were going unheeded.

The Holocaust began with words and small acts, then infinitely larger ones that resulted in the murder of six million Jews
Ruth Cohen

“I am so disheartened and sadly convinced that we have not learnt the lessons that this history, my history, teaches," she said.

"I implore everyone, especially those in leadership positions, to be motivated by this history — use your authority and influence to push back against those who perpetuate the worst instincts in human behaviour.

"Events like this one [in Abu Dhabi] are important. They help educate about the importance of learning from history.

"I implore you to do what you can to ensure that everyone’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren don’t face the same atrocities. We can do better. We must do better.”

'Day my life began to change'

Ms Cohen was the keynote speaker at the Gulf's second annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was hosted by Zayed University in partnership with the US embassy in Abu Dhabi and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Born in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia (now Mukacevo in Ukraine), Ms Cohen was eight when her country was partitioned by Nazi Germany and became part of Hungary.

“That day my life began to change,” she said.

“My town became part of Hungary and boys and girls could no longer study in the same classroom and instead of Czech, we learnt Hungarian.

"My father’s business was taken away immediately because he was Jewish and our German nanny had to leave because she was no longer allowed to work for a Jewish family.

“Shortly after, we learnt that members of my mother’s family who were still living in Slovakia had been taken to the Majdanek concentration camp in German-occupied Poland and murdered.”

By April 1944, she was moved into a ghetto that had been established in Mukacevo, where conditions were terrible, with overcrowding, food was scarce and disease was rife — but the real nightmare was only beginning.

Her next memory was of the barracks in Auschwitz, Poland.

Ms Cohen was deloused, shaven, showered and given striped clothing and clogs when she arrived. She was also separated from her parents.

“I do not remember entering the barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time," she said.

"This was where my sister and I lived for the next six, seven months. It was freezing in the mornings and once the sun came up, it was so hot.

"Twelve women slept in each wooden rack of the bunk, with every six of us sharing one blanket.”

Prisoners were forced into labour and Ms Cohen was given the "good job" of messenger girl.

Auschwitz was the largest camp established by the Germans in occupied-Poland.

The Nazis murdered about one million Jews there, including Ms Cohen’s mother, brother and cousins.

Importance of respect

A month after liberation by allied soldiers from a camp near Pilsen, Ms Cohen and her sister went home to Mukacevo, where their father was waiting.

“We were the only ones to return, not our mother, brother, cousins or more than 55 other relatives,” she said.

In April 1948, they arrived in the US, with her sister joining six months later.

"For me, coming to America gave me a new full life with some of my old family, new friends, school, work, marriage and children.

“Clearly, these were horrible experiences to live through but I retained a sense of humanity.

"As a young child, my parents and grandparents taught me the importance of respecting all people — to be inclusive of all people in my life and to see all people as my equal.”

She said the Holocaust provides lessons about human nature, showing that when one group in society is singled out for persecution, other groups are likely to be targeted, too.

"In small and large ways, each individual has the capacity to hurt or to heal, to savage or to save," she said.

"Perhaps one of the most important lessons to note at today’s commemoration of the 78th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is that the Holocaust did not begin with Auschwitz, nor should it be solely defined by it.

"It began with words and small acts, then infinitely larger ones that resulted in the murder of six million Jews.

"For so many, Auschwitz is a symbol of the ultimate expression of hatred and inhumanity. For me, it isn’t a symbol, it was and is my reality.”

Updated: January 31, 2023, 9:59 AM