November 18, 2018

Betty Cohen: At 95, ‘bionic woman’ still going strong

Betty Cohen, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, is unsure if all the time she spends telling her story has amounted to anything. 

“Is it worth it, or do I make a fool of myself?” Cohen says at the conclusion of a recent interview in the apartment on Beverly Glen Boulevard that she shares with her daughter, Hedy van der Fluit, and their two dogs, Lady and Ace.

A widow, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Cohen was born in the Netherlands, interned at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and lost both of her parents to the crematoria. She said she last saw them on May 22, 1944, and has lots of questions for God.

“I ask Him all the time,” she said. “ ‘Why did it happen?’ ”

Cohen has regular speaking engagements at the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, where her video testimony is featured in the “Tree of Testimony” permanent exhibition.

But that’s not the half of what she’s up to these days. Despite her age, Cohen volunteers every Thursday at the UCLA Medical Center gift shop and has been volunteering at the medical center in some capacity for almost 30 years. It’s one way that she has kept busy, she said, ever since she stopped working for her son’s music retail business 33 years ago at the urging of her children. 

Cohen takes Uber multiple times a day to the various routine destinations in her life, including the medical center and Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown, where she studies Torah every Saturday morning with her daughter and volunteers every Sunday for the synagogue food bank. 

Her work at the hospital began with spending time with young patients. She recalls bonding with a boy with autism before she left for a visit to Holland. Upon her return, the boy was gone. He had died. 

“He was a sick boy,” she said. Afterward, she decided she did not want to volunteer with child patients anymore, so she started visiting patients just out of surgery. As she grew older, she felt the need to do simpler work, and today she helps in the gift shop. 

Among her responsibilities for the Wilshire Boulevard Temple food bank are picking up day-old bagels from Noah’s Bagels on Larchmont Boulevard — her Uber driver always waits while she retrieves them — and helping to distribute fresh vegetables, potatoes, bread and yogurt to food bank visitors. She said she is grateful to have somewhere to go every Sunday morning and enjoys her relationship with the other volunteers as well as the regular guests at the food bank.

She goes most places by Uber and sits in the front passenger seat, a chance to get to know her drivers. Just back from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where she related her survivor story to a group of 35 law enforcement officials, she said the Uber driver who brought her home was a young Israeli man who wanted to take her to Las Vegas. 

The sprightly Cohen exercises regularly at the senior center in Culver City, despite having a pacemaker, hearing aids and two new hips. She calls herself the “bionic woman” and says she talks to God every night — that she is ready to go as soon as He’ll have her.

Her daughter and roommate, who is a high school teacher, says no one is more deserving than her mother of being recognized for good deeds in the local community.

“She’s one of a kind,” she said.