Esthir Cohen was not looking forward to this day - Friday, March 7 - when she was due to meet German President Joachim Gauck. She knew that there would be nothing pleasant about the encounter. Because Esther, aged 90 and known as Stella in Greek, is one of just two Jews still alive in Ioannina of the 50-odd who survived the Holocaust and made it back from Auschwitz. It was the German president who requested that they meet during his three-day official visit to Greece.
I wondered when I visited Esther at her home ahead of the visit how anyone could prepare for such an encounter.
“I feel odd, shaken. I want to ask him where such hate came from, to burn millions of people alive because it just so happened that they were of a different religion,” she said. “Should I accept an apology? Nothing can make up for what they did to us. I have no one to see me off when I do die. They left no one; everyone was burned.”
Her story leaves me feeling sick to my stomach – her anger is directed not just at the Nazis but also her Christian compatriots: “When they were pulling us out of our homes and dragging us through the streets so they could send us to Germany, not a single neighbor even peeked through the curtains to see what was going on.”
It was the early hours of March 25, 1944. In a well-planned operation orchestrated with the help of the Greek gendarmerie, the Gestapo swept through the Jewish quarter of Ioannina, a town close to Greece’s northwestern border, piling 1,725 men, women and children onto trucks.
Only a handful managed to get away and flee into the mountains, where they joined the guerrillas, among them the man Esther was to later marry. The rest, among whom were 17-year-old Esther, her parents and her six siblings, were sent off to the crematoriums. Less than 50 came back.
“The last time I saw my parents was on the railway platform in Auschwitz, where we were separated. I remember that as they were driven away in the back of a truck, they shouted out, ‘Girls, defend your honor.’ One day when our heads were being shaved by one of the prisoners, she asked me what had become of my parents. I said that I didn’t know. She pointed to the flames coming out of the crematorium and said, ‘There they are, burning.’”
Esther’s escape was a matter of pure luck. She was in the infirmary and was hidden by a German doctor of Jewish descent when SS officers took everyone from the ward and marched them to the crematorium. After the concentration camp was liberated she learned that the only other member of her family to have survived was her sister. Everyone else had been exterminated. When she returned to Ioannina, she went straight to her house, where she received the second big blow.
“I knocked on the door and a stranger opened it,” she said. “He asked me what I wanted and I told him that it was my house. ‘Do you remember whether there was an oven here?’ he asked me. ‘Why yes, of course, we used to bake bread and beautiful pies,’ I replied. ‘Well get out of here then. You may have got away from the ovens in Germany, but I’ll cook you right here in your own home.’ I was horrified.”
Esther tried to rebuild her life. She married Samuel, who had survived the war in the mountains. She then tried to locate family heirlooms and useful tools and objects she remembered having at home.
“I found out that the metropolitan bishop had our two Singer sewing machines. I went and asked for them to be returned to me, but I was told that they had been given to the regional authorities. There, they asked me to produce the serial numbers of the machines before they would look for them. They were obviously trying to brush me off,” said Esther. “I raised my arm and showed them the indelible number from Auschwitz. ‘This is the only number I remember,’ I told them and left.”
Esther managed to get back on her feet in what can only be described as a hostile environment.
“It was one day in the late 1960s. A theology professor at the local high school called my daughter [also a teacher] a ‘damn Jew’ because he saw her walking with me in the street past the 9 p.m. curfew. She never got over the insult. As soon as she finished the year she moved to Israel. She never came back,” said Esther.
“You didn’t say a word for so many years. Why?” I asked her.
“Because we were scared. We were unloved by everyone. Don’t you see?” she asked, tears welling up in her eyes.