October 17, 2018

Survivor: Betty Cohen

During her first night in Birkenau, on May 22, 1944, Betty Cohen — née Beppe (Rebecca) Corper — slid out of her lower bunk and stepped outside to use the toilet. Just 23, she had arrived that morning with her parents, aunt and grandmother, as well as her fiance and his family, from Westerbork, a transit camp in northeastern Netherlands. Everyone had been immediately separated; only Elizabeth, Betty’s fiance’s sister, remained with her. Once outside, Betty stared at flames rising toward the sky. “If you came with your family,” a nearby guard told her, “they were gassed and now they’re being burned. You might as well say goodbye.” 

Betty was born on March 23, 1921, in Amsterdam, to Louis Corper and Heintje Corper-Hamel. Her brother Jaap was born in 1912, and Ies in 1914. When Betty was a toddler, the family moved to Hilversum, 20 miles southeast of Amsterdam.

Betty’s father worked for his wife’s family’s wholesale businesses. The family was well off, and Betty led a privileged life. She attended public school and afternoon Hebrew school classes. 

After finishing sixth grade at age 12, Betty attended a vocational school, where she learned to cook, sew and care for infants. 

On May 2, 1940, while tea dancing in Amsterdam, Betty met Abraham Cohen (called Appie in Holland and, later, Al). She saw him again on May 8 at a friend’s wedding. 

Two days later, on the morning of May 10, Betty was awakened by bombs exploding at the nearby Loosdrecht Airport, as Germany attacked Holland. Five days later, Holland capitulated. 

Soon after, Betty was fired from her department store job. All Jewish businesses were confiscated, and curfews were enforced. “It was getting scary,” Betty said.

In early 1942, all Dutch Jews were ordered to move to Amsterdam. Betty and Al were already engaged, and a gentile neighbor hid Betty’s trousseau in her chicken coop. Betty, her parents and grandmother moved into two rooms in the Jewish quarter.

At night, Betty and her family often heard screaming as Gestapo officers wrested people from their homes. “We were shivering. We were scared it could happen to us,” she said.

Betty’s father sought a way to escape to Switzerland. In the meantime, he found hiding places for the family in Hilversum. 

In April 1942, Betty, Al and Al’s brother, Jerry, moved into an old cottage consisting of two small rooms and an attic. It was owned by a man named Dirk, who was in the resistance and who brought them food every morning. 

Al’s sister, Elizabeth, soon arrived. Dirk then brought an older man with two unmarried daughters, who smelled bad, Betty remembered. The man’s two sons, ages 7 and 8, also joined them. 

Betty, Al, Jerry and Elizabeth slept in the attic. The others slept downstairs. Then Betty’s parents, grandmother and aunt moved in, as did two other couples that Dirk brought, bringing the total to 17 people. 

“Everybody was scared and miserable,” Betty said. She and Elizabeth kept busy cooking and washing for the eight members of Betty’s and Al’s families. Al’s and Betty’s fathers wrote diaries, Jerry drew pictures, and Betty’s mother knit. At all times, they had to whisper to avoid being heard by people in neighboring cottages.

Two years after they moved in, one early morning in April 1944, the Gestapo broke down the front door. “Raus, raus,” they shouted. “Out, out!” One soldier climbed the ladder to the attic with his gun drawn. “Macht schnell,” he said, “Hurry up.” They took what they could carry and left.

They were eventually taken to Westerbork, where Betty worked sewing hats and gloves for German soldiers. 

A month later, on May 19, 1944, Betty’s and Al’s families were crammed into a cattle car, where they huddled together. “Where we’re going is not so good,” Betty’s father said during the trip. “We may not see each other.” Betty and her parents kissed and hugged, as Betty sobbed. They held onto each other until the train doors opened. 

Betty, Elizabeth and the other women were taken to a bathhouse where they were ordered to disrobe and shower and were sprayed with disinfectant. They were tattooed with numbers and given rags and wooden shoes to wear.

The next morning, after seeing the crematorium flames, Betty and the other women were taken back to the bathhouse. Their hair was shorn, and they were given a second number. 

Work was only sporadic. They spent long hours standing at appel, roll call, every morning, frightened as the guards randomly selected 50 to 100 people daily, dispatching them to the crematorium. “God was watching me,” Betty said. 

Although single, Betty one day responded to a request for married women. Along with 29 others, she was moved to a brick hospital building, with bunk beds with clean sheets and pillows. 

But Betty soon learned they were there to be sterilized. On four occasions, she was placed on an operating table while doctors sprayed a liquid vaginal solution. The process was painful, though ultimately ineffective.

On Jan. 18, 1945, as the Russian front approached, the prisoners were evacuated on a death march. With no shoes and her feet wrapped in towels, Betty walked in the snow and cold with seven Dutch women from the hospital. “We stuck together like glue. We were a family,” she said. 

After several days, they were taken by cattle car to Ravensbrück, where they were crammed 10 to 12 people to a bunk, in an overheated barracks with no food and people dying daily. “We were half-crazy,” Betty said.  

A month later, as they heard bombing in the distance, they were loaded into open cattle cars and taken to a small camp in Parchim, Germany.

Then, on May 4, they were forced on another march. That night, as darkness fell, Betty fell asleep huddled in a field with her seven friends. When they awoke, the guards and dogs were gone. It was May 5, 1945. “We cried. We hugged each other,” Betty said. 

The girls walked to a farmhouse, where a farmer offered them a barn. The next morning the Russians arrived, moving the farmer to the barn and the girls to the house. There they gorged themselves on food they found in a huge pantry. 

Betty soon left and eventually returned to Hilversum, where she was reunited with Al. She learned that many of her aunts, uncles and cousins had survived, but Al had no one. 

On Oct. 4, 1945, Betty and Al married and moved into their own house. They raised Louis, the young son of Betty’s brother Ies and his wife, Herta, who had both been captured and killed. 

A few years later, on Feb. 1, 1948, Betty, Al and Louis immigrated to the United States, arriving in Hoboken, N.J. They immediately traveled to Atlanta, where Herta’s sister, Elsie, and her husband, Ike, lived with their son, Alan.

In late April 1949, both families moved to Los Angeles. Betty and Al’s son, Jerry, was born in June of that year and their daughter, Hedy, in 1953. Louis went to live with Elsie and Ike. 

Al died on Feb. 9, 1974. 

Betty now has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She remains close to Louis, who has two children and two grandchildren. 

Betty, 92, goes to the Westside JCC’s gym four times a week. She volunteers at the UCLA Medical Center gift shop one day a week, as she’s been doing for 40 years, and she attends Torah study at Wilshire Boulevard Temple on Saturday mornings. She recently spent three weeks in Holland visiting family. 

For the past five years, Betty has been speaking at the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

“I tell people to never forget to say goodbye,” she said. “You never know what can happen to your mother. You never know what can happen to you.”