When I drove over to meet Barbara Cohen for the first time, one of the very first things she did, while welcoming me into her house, was finding me something to eat, saying that her mother always told her that food was gold. Since I was a guest in her house and a bit hungry, I couldn’t refuse a light snack, but what she said about her mother stuck with me. I knew immediately what Barbara was talking about and where it came from. Even if I was not told, I knew then that Barbara is a holocaust survivor.
Barbara was born in Bukaczowce, Poland, in 1941, two years after the second World War started. Her father was luckily able to graduate as a lawyer in Krakow before Hitler came to power, and her mother was a bookkeeper in Stanislawow, the same place where the two met and married. Eventually, Barbara and her parents were sent to a ghetto, but forged false documents with outside help and escaped.
Barbara’s journey was just getting started. She hid with her parents in a farmer’s house and had a close call when a Nazi officer came to inspect it after receiving a tip. After this incident, the farmer sent them away, and Barbara’s parents decided to split up. Barbara went with her mother to Germany, and her dad stayed in Poland. Barbara’s mother at first had a lot of trouble keeping her jobs because of the task of taking care of her baby, but at some point, she got a call from a German woman who was willing to take care of two-year-old Barbara. However, when the German woman no longer allowed Barbara’s mother to visit, Barbara’s mother took her and they ran away through Dresden, which at the time was being bombed by the Allies.
After the war, Barbara witnessed hundreds of survivors looking for their families and friends, and she was found by her dad via the Red Cross. Then, Barbara and her family immigrated to the US on the first ship of refugees from the war. They stayed in Brooklyn until Barbara was 11 and then moved to Detroit.
Barbara Cohen graduated from the University of Michigan as a Physical Therapist. She joined the Children of the Holocaust Association in Michigan, (CHAIM) to promote Holocaust education and awareness, and volunteered with helping Holocaust survivors.
What’s unique about Barbara is that because she was a young Holocaust survivor, she does not remember nor feel the burdens and horrors of the Holocaust like many survivors do. We talked about how most Holocaust survivors have difficulty telling their stories because of this trauma, and I realized that Barbara was lucky to be able to tell her story more easily. Being a young survivor also motivates Barbara to learn more about the Holocaust through reading books and watching documentaries, and she shares what she learns by speaking at the Holocaust Center and beyond. At some point, Barbara's aunt jokingly said “you’re obsessed” because of how much time she dedicates to learning and talking about the Holocaust. However, as she has told me, that is just how she is.
I am very honored to have met Barbara Cohen and heard her story. Above all, I found her dedication to Holocaust education extraordinary, and I learned so much from talking with her.