Start of Main Content

Eyewitness to History: Ruth Cohen

Ruth Cohen was born in Mukačevo, Czechoslovakia, in 1930. The territory was annexed by Hungary, a Nazi ally, in 1938. After Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, Ruth and her family were forced into a ghetto and later deported to Auschwitz. Ruth and her sister, Teresa, were then sent to another camp. They were liberated in early 1945.


Ruth Cohen:

I was born in Mukachevo, Czechoslovakia, in 1930 to a warm and loving family.

My sister, Terri, was seven years older than I and my brother, Ari, was one and a half years younger.

I had a very happy childhood, filled with extended family, many friends, and the opportunity to go to a great school, the Hebrew Gymnasium.

On March 8th, 1938, Czechoslovakia was partitioned. The next morning my mother told us that she had spent the night worrying about the future and in fact that day my life began to change.

My town became part of Hungary and now boys and girls could no longer study in the same classroom.

Instead of Czech, we learned Hungarian.

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

Shortly after, we learned that members of my mother’s family had been taken to Majdanek and murdered.

My whole family officially went into mourning.

In March 1944, Hitler marched into Hungary.

Our school was closed and we had to wear yellow stars.

By mid-April, we were forced to move to a ghetto in Mukachevo.

Within days of our move, Mr. Zelko, a man who had previously tried to buy our house, was allowed to just go into the house and empty it of all its contents.

In mid-May, all Jews in Mukachevo were marched to the brick factory, where the railroad was lined up with cattle cars.

We were ordered into the cars, and my 83-year-old grandmother, in a wheelchair, was taken onto a special car for invalids.

That was the last time I saw her.

My Biology teacher, whom I adored and admired, refused to climb the steps and was shot in front of everyone and left there for all to see.

It was horrific.

My next memory is entering the barrack in Auschwitz, where I spent the next six, seven months.

My sister’s friend, Miriam Leitner, was our Blockälteste.

She informed us that our mother, brother, and little cousins who had come with us had already been murdered.

Who could believe something so outrageous?

But it was true.

Miriam helped me get a job as a messenger girl and my sister became her assistant.

When I had typhoid fever, the people I had met as a messenger saved my life by hiding me when the Nazis came into the infirmary to conduct a selection.

Sometime in July, we got a message to be at a specific place where we might see our father.

We went and saw him carrying blankets.

We called out and waved to each other and laughed with joy.

A few weeks later, we received a message from my Uncle Iles, who had come to Auschwitz via Terezín.

We were to meet him at four o’clock at a spot near the barbed wire fence.

We met him that day and on several more days.

He informed us that soon he would be taken to the gas chambers.

Indeed, in a few days a friend of his came to our meeting spot and told us that our uncle had been killed.

There are no words to adequately describe the horror of that moment.

At the end of October, 500 women, including my sister and I, were taken to Nuremberg to work at a Siemens plant.

I was in great pain and was unable to work.

Shortly after that, the factory was bombed and we were sent to another camp and another Siemens factory.

Due to my severe back pain, I couldn’t work anymore and just stayed in my bed.

Two days before the end of the war, we were in our barrack and suddenly saw men running down the hill with open bayonets.

It was a group of White Russian partisans.

I remember our excitement and how we jumped up on the beds to see the men running toward the camp.

Most of the Germans did not resist arrest by the partisans, but one officer tried to flee on a motorbike.

He was shot right in front of us.

Some cheered, but most of us were shocked to see such cruelty—humanity was still intact.

The partisans invited anyone who wanted to, to come join them.

Those not leaving were told to stay in the camp to wait for the Americans who were close by.

About 120 women left with the partisans.

Several hours later, the Jewish women came back to the camp.

They had been told the Jews were not welcomed by the partisans.

Antisemitism was still alive and well.

A month after liberation, my sister and I went home to Mukachevo, where our Dad was waiting for anyone or everyone who survived.

What a glorious reunion that was.

However, I was quite sick.

Six months later, I went to a hospital in Bratislava, where I spent the year being treated for tuberculosis on the spine, including nine months during which I was immobile.

Yet, how lucky I was again. Most people died from that ailment.

My father and sister now lived near Prague and visited at least once a month.

Other survivors from the local Jewish community also visited me, and renewed my hope in humanity.

A year after leaving the hospital, in 1948, my Dad and I arrived at the New York Harbor on the first night of Passover, which also was my 18th birthday.

The Statue of Liberty was waiting to greet us.

Even now when I pass Lady Liberty I feel emotional and acknowledge the strong need for always believing in her message of hope.

The Holocaust teaches us about human nature—that there is capacity for good as well as for evil.

That when one group in a 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.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons to learn from this history is 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.

Survivors of the Holocaust, like myself, are disheartened and sadly convinced that the world has not learned the lessons that this history, my history, teaches.

It is appalling to see the stunning denial of the Holocaust and other atrocities in the world.

I implore everyone to be motivated by this history.

Use your influence to push back against those who perpetuate the worst instincts in human behavior.

There were many difficult moments in my life when people extended a helping hand.

While it may have required little effort on their part, the impact on my body and my soul was great.

No matter how powerless we feel, we each have the ability, and the moral obligation, to make this world better.

That remains the goal of my life and I hope that others are inspired to do the same.