“...I survived that one, too!”

"My life is not easy. But I manage..."

Ilena M.

Betty Cohen: Immigrated from The Netherlands

December 16, 2019

Betty Cohen sits in a chair opposite me. She’s dressed in a long-sleeve maroon blouse, cotton pants of a similar color, and brown loafers: the quintessential elderly woman outfit. There’s a white handkerchief with pastel flowers folded across her knee, a silver cane propped against one elbow, a leather purse clutched in her fingers. “It’s not easy,” she says with a slight, ambiguous accent, summarizing the last hour and a half’s discussion in one sentence, “My life is not easy. But I manage.” I scribble that down on paper while she gulps water. Securing the lid of the plastic bottle, Betty clears her throat and looks at me, waiting for a response. “Of course, you do,” I swallow, blinking back tears as I visualize the magnitude of that statement, trying to understand even the slightest bit of what that might mean. I manage.


Betty managed when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands and she had to go into hiding, shortly after getting engaged, not yet 20 years old. Betty managed when she and her 16 roommates were caught by the Gestapo, sent to Westerbork Transit Camp and, from there, to Auschwitz- Birkenau. She managed when a serious foot injury separated her from the few family members she still had, when the prospect of her fiancé being alive in the men’s camp prompted her to lie, say she was married, and end up undergoing Nazi sterilization experiments. Betty managed, despite the worsening injury and Nazi brutality, to survive a death march to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp and an open cattle car ride to Malchow Concentration Camp where food was so scarce, she had to eat grass from the meadow where she slept (“I survived that one, too,” Betty giggled happily to me). When liberated by the Russians, she managed to find her way home to Hilversum, the Netherlands, reunite with her fiancé, marry him, and, with their young nephew, board a ship to the United States. She managed when the boat broke down in the middle of the ocean, when she made it to New York with limited knowledge of English, when her family (Although she thought the Nazis had sterilized her, Betty had 2 children) struggled to make a living in West Los Angeles.


And here she is in front of me, 98-years-old, still walking, talking, sharing her story -- managing just fine. It’s unbelievable to sit next to this woman, impossible to comprehend who she is, what she’s been through, how far she’s come as she looks me in the eyes and says, “I love you,
baby, give me a hug.”

 

“Thank you,” I reply, because everything else is too much or too little.