VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (NNS) -- If you had to pack one bag to take with you for the next two years what would it be? This is the decision that Dana Cohen and other survivors had to face when they tried to flee during the Holocaust in World War II.
Service members and civilians assigned to Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) heard firsthand what a Holocaust survivor packed during a remembrance program held at the Type Command on board Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, May 4.
The event, hosted by NECC's Multicultural Heritage Committee, was held to honor the memory of Jewish victims and survivors of Nazi Germany's genocide during World War II. The program, "What We Carry," was named to illustrate what survivors took with them, physically and mentally, when they fled their homes, and the lessons they learned to survive. Many could only carry items in their arms or in a suitcase. To represent their personal struggle, the film stories of the survivors are accompanied by suitcases filled with items that are pertinent to their stories.
"Ms. Cohen's story is truly moving," said Chief Builder Eric Dirk, helped coordinate the program. "It is a story of survival, traveling from Poland to Uzbekistan up to Siberia to a forced labor camp, and then ending up in Uganda before making her way into the United States."
For Dirk, it was a once-in-a-lifetime honor to meet a survivor of the Holocaust and learn about her story of survival.
Representatives from the Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater were on hand to lead the presentation. Martin Mandelberg and Lynn Woods implored the audience to apply lessons these survivors learned from their ordeals to help others make moral decisions in their own lives.
"If you do, you will be honoring our local survivors, who have been brave enough to share their stories so they will not be forgotten, and so future generations do not forget," said Mandelberg. "Although each survivor has a different story, they all share a common thread: a personal struggle involving courage, tenacity, luck and eventually survival."
Mandelberg further discussed the history of the Holocaust, explaining that "prejudice against or hatred of Jews, known as antisemitism, has plagued the world for more than 2,000 years. However, the Holocaust is the world's most extreme example of this hatred."
Mandelberg emphasized the impact of the Holocaust. "In 1933 the Jewish population of Europe stood at over 9 million. By 1945 the Nazis and their collaborators had murdered 6 million Jews, nearly two out of every three Jews in Europe."
The program featured a film recounting Dana Cohen's journey to survive the Holocaust. She was present and participated in the discussion sharing her journey to freedom.
Cohen was born in Poland in 1932 to a businessman and a "lady of leisure." In 1939, when Germany and Russia invaded Poland, her father was immediately mobilized in the Army and Cohen and her mother went to her grandparents' house and hid in their cellar.
They survived in occupied Poland for almost a year, but on April 13, 1940, Russian soldiers found their location, and forced Cohen and her mother onto trains headed to work camps in Siberia.
"It was not a passenger train, it was a cattle train," said Cohen. "There were 40 to 50 people to a wagon, packed like sardines."
The journey took months and when they arrived to the labor camp were forced to live in sparse barracks and put immediately to work. They built stables, roads and the infrastructure for the camp, but in payment they received only bread and water. If they did not complete their daily work, they went to bed hungry.
Cohen and the other children in captivity learned of a farm field across the river from the camp. Being ever resourceful, Cohen's mother deepened the hem of her skirt so she could smuggle potatoes into the camp to help sustain them during the long Siberian winters. Miraculously, they also received small care packages from their former housekeeper. Dana's mother, ingeniously, negotiated living arrangements in a Russian peasant's kitchen so they would not fall victim to the harsh winters.
In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and all of the workers in the labor camps were released, but were not given any assistance or resources to return home. Cohen and her mother used the few possessions they still had, to include her mother's wedding ring that she considered "her last link to her previous life," and hired a truck to take them to a train station nearby.
Cohen and her mother escaped to Uganda, Africa and later in 1958 Dana arrived in the United States where Cohen still resides. They found out after their escape from Europe that her father was killed in the infamous Katyn Forest Massacre during World War II. Their survival as Cohen's mother later wrote "could be described only in terms of one large chain of miracles."
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