The oldest Greek survivor of the hell of Auschwitz, Mrs. Esther Cohen, passed away late in the night on December 1 at the age of 96.
It was March 25, 1944 when the Nazi invaders of Greece rounded up the Jews of her native Ioannina and shipped them like animals to the death camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
There were 1725 men, women and children and the memory of the day was captured on camera by Nazi German photographers who were part of the occupation forces. Esther was 18 years old.
Her last memory of her parents was when they were arriving at the gate of the camp. She never saw them again after that fateful day.
Of the 1725 people from Ioannina, only 50 survived and returned. Esther was one of them and as she returned to Ioannina, she rushed to her family home
Her memories were captured in an interview with Kathimerini in 2014.
“I knocked on the door and an unknown man answered. ‘What do you want?’ he asked me,” Esther said. “This is my home,’ I responded.”
“’Do you remember if your house had an oven?’ the man asked me as I stood at the front door,” she said. “’Of course, we had a stove,’ I told him, also telling him that we used to bake bread and pies.”
“’Well get the hell out of here,’ he told me. ‘You were lucky to be saved from the ovens in Germany, you won’t be so lucky here in the ovens of your former home.’”
Alone, with no family members that survived, Esther was left to start from scratch. She started to piece together parts of her life, seeking to locate items that belonged to her or resurrect old friendships after the chaos of the war. But it was difficult.
“I learned that two of my mother’s Singer sewing machines were taken by the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan so he could use them for his robes, so I went and asked for them to be returned to their rightful owner — me,” Esther said in the Kathimerini interview.
In order to prove the sewing machines were hers, they asked her for the serial numbers.
Angry and frustrated, she raised the sleeve of the dress she was wearing and said “Here’s the only number I remember,” showing them the tattoo from Auschwitz before storming out of the doors of the Church’s offices.
In 2014, during a visit to Ioannina by Germany’s then-president Joachim Gauck, he met Cohen at a public event in tears as he kissed her and begged forgiveness for the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
The moment was captured in a photograph that appeared on newspapers’ front pages around the world.
“After our deaths, people should realize that man should not be inhuman,” she told the German president.
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