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Elie Cohen

Alex Cohen

"life has become worthless to me"
Op 17 March 1943 Alex Cohen, aged 37, from Groningen, his wife and their child were put on a transport from Westerbork to Sobibor. The train reached its final destination three days later. It was the dead of night, and ‘the first thing we heard was loud screaming by the Huns,’ Alex Cohen stated in 1947. The men were immediately separated from the women and children. The camp SS called out they needed workers and Cohen volunteered as a metal worker. He and the other selected men were herded back onto the train and transported to the Lublin-Majdanek camp. In the meantime the other prisoners had been led into Sobibor. Sick and disabled prisoners had already been hauled onto tippers and taken on a narrow gauge railway straight into the so-called Lager III. Nobody on the transport knew that this separate section of the camp housed the gas chambers and the execution area. Here the tippers were unloaded and the victims were shot; their bodies were thrown into a huge burial pit. The other prisoners were herded into the gas chambers. ‘If I had known what was going on in the camp’, said Cohen, ‘I would have tried to stay there and I would not have come back, because my wife and child were killed there. My family was almost completely wiped out, so life has become worthless to me. I used to be so happy.’

In 1943 mainly Jewish and non-Jewish Poles were taken to Lublin-Majdanek, but there were also many Jews from Czechoslovakia and Slovenia. Due to the extremely primitive conditions in the camp, where the prisoners worked very hard on the land, many died from malnutrition and exhaustion. Prisoners were often beaten and random executions took place regularly. Moreover, when Cohen arrived at the camp, gas chambers had been in operation for some time; here prisoners from Italy, Germany and the Netherlands who were judged unfit to work were killed. A total of at least 200,000 people were murdered here, including some 70,000 Jews. The enormous camp complex was divided into six sections (Felder), enclosed by a barbed wire fence. ‘Most prisoners who entered in Feld IV and V, went through to the gas chamber. This is where, among others, the transports from Warsaw that were gassed arrived’, according to Cohen.

"I will not let the Hun destroy me"
In Majdanek Cohen had the good fortune of being assigned to the kitchen, so he could supplement his meagre rations. Others were less fortunate and unable to summon sufficient mental resilience. Where Cohen kept telling himself: ‘I will not let the Hun destroy me’, he saw others waste away. One Dutch boy could no longer endure life in the camp. ‘When we arrived and after the so-called physical examination by the doctor, I had told him “Damn, you’re muscular”, but after about six weeks he was already finished, he couldn’t find the courage to resist anymore, contracted typhoid fever and swollen feet and after that he was gone very quickly.’ The men from Cohen’s Arbeitskommando sometimes got their hands on valuable items from the newly arrived transports. One time Cohen managed to obtain a watch, which he swapped for butter with the barber.

After three months Cohen was transferred to the Skarzysko-Kamienna labour camp, southwest of Lublin. By pure coincidence he did not have to work in the section of the camp where prisoners had to fill grenades with the highly poisonous explosive trotyl. To be able to continue working the slave labourers had been fed lots of milk and eggs as antidote, but the newly arrived Dutchmen were barely fed at all ‘and after three months all of the Dutchmen were gone’. Even the ‘strongest men couldn’t take it because of the effects of the poison.’ In the camp Cohen worked on a machine and he also had to dig pits that the dead were thrown into. Later he contracted dysentery and he heard fellow-prisoners say: ‘Der Holländer geht kaputt.’ But the sick Cohen recovered. ‘I ate practically nothing for two weeks and I sold my soup and black bread and bought white bread in return, and I also did almost no work. That’s how I got through it.’

"If you found a potato in your soup you were lucky"
As in all camps the prisoners were left mainly to their own devices when it came to survival. In Majdanek in particular the food supply was poor and everyone ached for something extra to eat. ‘If you found a potato in your soup you were lucky. I mostly had just one piece of bread, and even this was often stolen from me. When I slept,’ explained Cohen, ‘I would put the bread inside my coat and my coat under my head, but the next morning it was still often gone!’ To get more food Cohen had already swapped his pants for a lesser quality pair. This bought him extra soup every day.

When the Red Army advanced from the east in June, Cohen was evacuated to a labour camp near Czestochowa. By then he weighed only forty kilograms and he had reached the point that his environment no longer meant anything to him. Cohen and his group did not have to work in the camp ‘and I didn’t care what the others did, a sign that you were extremely numb, or you would want to know what those people were doing there.’ Driven by hunger Cohen dove into the rubbish bins near the women’s barracks to look for potato peels. He ‘washed them, burned them on the stove and ate them’. After a while Cohen was taken to Buchenwald and from there back to the southeast, where he ended up in Theresienstadt. It was here that he was eventually liberated by the Red Army.

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