The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

Judy Cohen

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Born
September 17, 1928 Debrecen, Hungary

Map of Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia

Immigrated
1948 Toronto

Judy Weissenberg is the mischievous and lively youngest child growing up in a large family in Debrecen, Hungary. But as the Nazis rise to power in Europe and anti-Jewish laws tear her family and community apart, Judy’s joyful youth becomes marred by fear and the hushed whispers of the adults around her. Then, in 1944, Germany occupies Hungary and Judy’s world is shattered. One terrifying event follows another, and soon Judy is faced with the incomprehensible — Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the shadow of the gas chambers, she clings to her sisters and “camp sisters,” who are her only hope of enduring the miseries that are to come. 

In A Cry in Unison, Holocaust survivor, educator and human rights activist Judy Weissenberg Cohen weaves her riveting story of survival with descriptions of the political and social forces that upended her life. Her voice is a powerful call to honour the unique experiences of women in the Holocaust and to refuse to be silent in the face of injustice.

About Judy

Judy Weissenberg Cohen was born in Debrecen, Hungary, in 1928. She is an active speaker and Holocaust and human rights educator, and in 2001 she founded the website “Women and the Holocaust,” which collects testimony, literature and scholarly material exploring the specific gender-based experiences of women in the Holocaust. Judy Cohen lives in Toronto.

Photos and Artifacts

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    Judy’s parents, Margit and Sándor Weissenberg. Debrecen, Hungary, 1910.

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    Judy (seated, right) with siblings and her cousin. Standing (left to right): Klári, Laci and Évi. In front: Judy’s cousin, name unknown (left) and Judy (right). Debrecen, circa 1931.

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    Judy (far right) and her sisters Évi (left) and Klári (centre). Debrecen, circa 1933.

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    Judy’s sister Böske (Erzsébet), just after graduating high school. Debrecen, 1933.

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    Judy’s brother Miklós . Debrecen, circa 1935.

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    Judy’s sister Klári (left) with her best friend, Elizabeth Neumann. Debrecen, circa 1937.

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    Judy (back row, fourth from the left) with her middle-school class. Judy’s best friend, Agi Losonczi, is on Judy’s right, and her “camp sister” Edit Feig is sitting in the first row on the left. Debrecen, circa 1940.

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    Judy (back row, fourth from the left) with her middle-school class. Judy’s best friend, Agi Losonczi, is on Judy’s right, and her “camp sister” Edit Feig is sitting in the first row on the left. Debrecen, circa 1940.

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    From left to right: Judy’s sisters Évi and Klári; Judy’s father, Sándor; and Judy. Debrecen, circa 1943.

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    Judy with her friends. From left to right: Judy, Anci Weiss and Agnes Losonczi. Debrecen, 1945.

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    Judy’s brother Laci (Leslie), after the war. Hungary, 1946.

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    Judy with her ORT Dental Technical School class in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. Judy is sitting on the left in the second row from the bottom. Circa 1947.

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    Judy with Chaver Steiner at the ORT dental technical school in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. Germany, circa 1947.

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    Judy at work with Chaver Rosenberg at the ORT dental technical school in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. Circa 1947.

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    Judy, sitting on the hood of the car on the right, and her sister, Évi, sitting on the hood of the car on the left, with their friends. Montreal, 1948.

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    Judy in her first winter coat and boots. Montreal, 1948.

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    Judy and her husband, Sidney Cohen, signing their marriage contract. Montreal, June 9, 1961.

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    Judy and her husband, Sidney Cohen, on their wedding day. Montreal, June 9, 1961.

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    Judy and Sidney dancing to violin music played by close friend Sam Balderman at their wedding. Montreal, June 9, 1961.

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    Judy’s sister Évi. Montreal, 1960s.

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    Judy’s brother Leslie (Laci). Toronto, 1972.

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    Judy (centre) with her husband, Sidney (front), and her daughter, Michelle and son, Jonathan. Toronto, 1980s.

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    Judy with her “camp sisters.” From left to right: Edith Feig, Judy and Sari Feig. Montreal, 1989.

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    Judy’s daughter, Michelle. Toronto, circa. 1990.

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    Judy and Sidney in their garden. Toronto, circa 2000.

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    Judy’s son, Jonathan. Toronto, 2003.

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    Judy and Sidney on a trip to Israel in 2005.

The Book

Cover of A Cry in Unison

A Cry in Unison

The women burst out in a cry — in unison. Our prayer was the sound of this incredible cry of hundreds of women. It seemed to give us solace.

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A Cry in Unison

Kol Nidre

That year, 1944, everybody came: the believers, the atheists, the Orthodox, the agnostics — women of all descriptions and of every background. We were about seven hundred women, jammed into one long barracks. We were all there, remembering our homes and families on this Yom Kippur, the one holiday that had been observed in even the most assimilated homes. We had asked for and received one candle and one siddur from the kapos. Someone lit the candle, and a hush fell over the barracks. I can still see the scene: the woman, sitting with the lit candle, starting to read Kol Nidre, the opening prayer of Yom Kippur

The kapos gave us only ten minutes while they guarded the two entrances to the barracks to watch out for SS guards who might come around unexpectedly. Practising Judaism or celebrating any Jewish holiday was forbidden in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The Nazis knew it would give solace to the prisoners. But this particular year, some of the older women had asked two kapos for permission to do something for the eve of Yom Kippur.

Most of the kapos were brutalized and brutal people, but a few of them remained truly kind. We knew these particular two were ap­proachable. One of the kind kapos was a tall blonde Polish woman, non-Jewish. The other one was a petite red-headed young Jewish woman from Slovakia.

When they had heard that we wanted to do something for Kol Nidre, the red-headed kapo was simply amazed that anyone still wanted to pray in that hellhole of Birkenau.

“You crazy Hungarian Jews,” she exclaimed. “You still believe in this? You still want to do this, and here?”

Well, incredibly, we did — in this place where we felt that instead of asking for forgiveness from God, God should be asking for forgive­ness from us. We all wanted to gather around the woman with the lit candle and siddur. She began to recite the Kol Nidre very slowly so that we could repeat the words if we wanted to. But we didn’t. In­stead, all the women burst out in a cry — in unison. Our prayer was the sound of this incredible cry of hundreds of women. I have never heard, before or since then, such a heart-rending sound. Something was happening to us. It was as if our hearts were bursting.

Even though no one really believed the prayer would change our situation, that God would suddenly intervene — we weren’t that na­ive — the opportunity to cry out and remember together reminded us of our former lives, alleviating our utter misery even for the short­est while, in some inexplicable way. It seemed to give us comfort.

Even today, many decades later, every time I go to Kol Nidre ser­vices, I can’t shake the memory of that sound. This is the Kol Nidre I always remember.