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First Person > David Cohen

David Cohen: Full Interview

portrait of David Cohen

Interview Clip #1:
Early life and education

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Audio also available in MP3 format

NM: Today is Thursday, November 20th, 2008, and we are in the Memorial Library of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield, Massachusetts, and I am Nathalie McCormick interviewing David Cohen. And...let's start.

NM: I was wondering if you would start by talking a bit about your early life...um...if you could say the date and place that you were born, and then maybe talk something about who your parents were, your education or anything you'd like us to know about you.

DC: It starts back in Brooklyn, New York. I was born December 11th, 1917, in a tenement in Brooklyn, New York, the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, which was the Jewish section. If you didn't live in the East Side in Jewish, you lived in Brownsville. And I was...lived there until I was three, four years old. Then we moved to a section, Bushwick section in Brooklyn. It was a mixed neighborhood. In fact, it was predominately German. It became the second largest German area after Yorkville, New York. And I had a...uneventful beginning, you know. My parents were nice. I had three older sisters, and I was the spoiled brat. I was the first male born into the...into our family, and when I was born, it was like little Jesus was born, my sisters said. You know, they all catered to me. I was the sp...you know...my father gave me everything. I wanted...I became interested in baseball. Baseball was my life for...for quite a while. I was educated in Brooklyn...went through elementary school and I was held back the first year. That was a traumatic experience in life. I was sick. I had the measles, mumps, chicken pox, and a swollen gland, all at one time, and I missed three–quarters of the term. We didn't have...go by the year. We went by a term in those days. It was 1A, 1B, and I was left back. I was held over in the...1A. And I don't think I felt so bad about being held over, but Mrs. Rex, the teacher, gave everybody a...a coloring book, but I was left back and she didn't give me the coloring book. I look back...I think, she had'a be mea...she was so nice, but she was mean. Why didn't she give me a coloring book? But anyway, I went through elementary school. I skipped three times and then I was sent to uh...special progress junior high school.

NM: Now when you say you "skipped three times", do you mean you skipped grades? Or you skipped school?

DC: Skipped grades...no, I would never skip school. That was unheard of. I'd get killed, as they said. [chuckles]

NM: So you skipped ahead.

DC: I skipped ahead. I made up my term, and then I had two other...I skipped the...I think the 2B and the 3B, and then into junior high...I made...you made three years in two years. It was called "rapid advance." And I went to a brand new high school that was built by the WPA. I remember the Roosevelt administration...in Queens...Grover Cleveland High School, and I had three years there, naturally. And then I went to West Virginia. I was only sixteen years old. My mother didn't want to send her nice little Jewish boy, you know, out of town. But my sisters insisted. In order for me to grow up, I'd have to go out. So I went to West Virginia. My first year I went to a...a Baptist school in southern West Virginia. And then from there I went to the University of West Virginia. I graduated...did pretty well. I majored...my mother wanted me to be a dentist. But I couldn't stand the sight of blood. I, I liked history, so I majored in history and minored in economics. I got my degree in 1938. That was a year after Lincoln was shot. But anyway... [Mr. Cohen laughs, then NM laughs.] She looks at me...that's just an exaggeration how many years ago.

Interview Clip #2:
First experiences of "really being Jewish"; early jobs; the Great Depression

Audio also available in MP3 format

DC: But anyway...I graduated in '38 and then I knocked around. And then I had my first experiences of really being Jewish. I tried to get a job, and I went to an agency down around the Wall Street area, and I was with a, an Italian who was Catholic. And everybody was sent out for jobs but the Catholic and the Jewish boy. It was our first, you know, taste of discrimination. But anyway, I knocked around. I took little jobs here and there. And, uh, one day I got a letter from a friend in West Virginia, Come down to...you're not working...come down to Princeton, West Virginia, near Bluefield. That's on the Virginia border. And I worked in a furniture store. I never had any experience but, he said, you'll learn. And I did. And I worked in a furniture store in the coal mining district.

NM: Were you selling furniture?

DC: I sold furniture. And I wanna tell you, the nicest people were the coal miners...and they were really taken advantage of. I remember John L. Lewis was there, their guard. 'Cause I remember stories they told me. They would have to dig two tons of...load two tons of coal...coal to get paid for one, because the operators told them that there was slag, there was dirt in there, and that uh...didn't make any sense to the operators, so they had to dig two tons to get paid for one. And after John L. Lewis organized'em, they made six dollars an hour, which was pretty good money in those days. And...it was really...I enjoyed, you know, my stay down in West Virginia.

NM: So that was after 1938...

DC: That was, yeah, 1940, 41, and uh, I had registered for the draft.

NM: Before we move on, I just want to ask you if you remember, specifically, things during the Great Depression,

DC: Oh...that moved me quite a bit. I remember I, when I tell'em I joined the Young Socialists, the YPSLs, they were called, the Young Socialist People's League [Mr. Cohen is referring to the Young People's Socialist League.] because what I saw...I remember, I slept in my...front porch, we called it, and at night, I could hear men going...digging through our garbage pail for food. And, I remember the long lines at the apple being sold on the corner...

NM: Did it affect your family, directly?

DC: Not my...my father was a carpenter and a glazier and a locksmith, mostly a glazier. And he was a hard working man. He worked, and he had a store, and he was an honest guy, so everybody in the neighborhood...they were all non–Jews, mostly, you know...we weren't discriminated in the immediate area. But, uh, I was called a "Christ killer" more than once in my lifetime.

Interview Clip #3:
David's Irish friend Maddy Fisher; David's Wife, the first Jewish Saint; David enlists in the Army

Audio also available in MP3 format

DC: I remember I had a, an Irish friend, a good Irish friend. He w...His mother was Irish Catholic and he went to parochial school. And one day the nun said, Christ...the Jews killed Christ. And Maddy Fisher walked out of the room and never went back.

NM: That was your friend?

DC: Yeah.

NM: How old was your friend, or how old were you?

DC: He was a year older than I was. He must've been...it was around like the seventh grade, so he might have been about twelve, thirteen. And Maddy taught me how to box. He was the Irish...you know, the little Jewish boy didn't know anything, but he...he told me how to defend myself, and uh, unfortunately, I received the last letter from him in Italy. He was a lieutenant in the 34th Infantry Division. And after...he wrote a letter saying that, uh, he just got out of the hospital and...he couldn't stand it anymore in the hospital, and he went back to his outfit and he was killed. I got the last letter he wrote. So it was kinda sad. His father was in the Sinn Fein movement in Ireland. I remember him telling me the story...the British, they would catch the Irish and throw'em out of a window, actually throw'em out of a window. They weren't...people aren't very nice, you know?

NM: Mmm...

DC: [chuckles] It's hard to believe, when I meet nice people like you and Rob...and then you think of the mean, nasty people...

NM: Yes...

DC: Well, I won't get into it...

NM: You were starting to say you had registered for the draft, so...

DC: And I went into the army and, uh, had my physical December 1941, and uh...In fact, I was listening to...I was home...I came home from West Virginia, just to go to the army, and uh, I became engaged with my charming wife, and uh...

NM: Is she still living?

DC: Yes. We'll be married 67 years in July.

NM: Oh...congratulations.

DC: [garbled]...the first Jewish saint.

NM: She picked the first Jewish saint?

DC: I said she will be the first Jewish saint for living with me that long. But someone told me it's not true because Mary was the first Jewish saint. But anyway...uh...I came home in December and I was engaged. My fa...future father–in–law said, join the Navy. He says, I know people. They were from Providence, Rhode Island. He says, I know people and I'll get your...have your, uh...boot training, they called it, in Newport. So I went to go volunteer in the army...

NM: What year was this?

DC: In 1941, in November, before Pearl Harbor, and I was turned down, rejected because of a stigmatism [sic] in my...in my eye. After the war, they would've taken me with one arm, but uh...at that time, I had a bad stigmatism [sic] so, I waited...In January 1942, after Pearl Harbor, right after Pearl Harbor, and I went in the army. And I had my basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and I was assigned to the 4th Armored Division in Watertown, New York. And I went back to Fort Knox in radio school and became a radio operator. And then we went...from Watertown we went to Tennessee maneuvers, and from Tennessee we went...from the coldest place in upstate New York, where we had 200 inches of snow, and went to California Mojave Desert where it was 136 in the sun, and we were there for seven and a half months, and I had a taste of Mississippi. I went to the University of Mississippi for five weeks for some communication course. And uh...my wife came down there and she...so she asked me, you know, the colored peo...the black people walking off the si...they couldn't walk on the sidewalk if you were walking there. That was still in 1942. But anyway, from Fort Knox, Kentucky...from, rather California, we went to Texas for more training, and that was the god's...worst place. We were in a place called Brownwood, we called it Deadwood.

Interview Clip #4:
David is a part of Patton's Third Army; the Hedgerows; Creighton W. Abrams

Audio also available in MP3 format

DC: But anyway, from there, we went overseas. And we landed in Wales and settled in a place called Wilshire Coun...uh...Wilshire Township in England, near Bath, Bristol Bath area. And we trained there, and we were put into Patton's Third Army. Now I can't repeat some of the things he said. He...he spoke to our division.

NM: You can say anything.

DC: I would never repeat it, not to you. I would tell him [gestures toward RW].

NM: You can tell him and I won't listen.

DC: No.

NM: Okay.

DC: He called everybody a son–of–a–bitch and a bastard. [garbled] But that's mild compared to what he said.

DC: But anyway, we didn't go to France until D–36.

NM: What is D–36?

DC: D–Day was June the 6th and we landed July...uh...when was...13th is, uh, Bastille Day. That's when we landed in France, Bastille Day. We had to wait until there was enough...see, an armored division has to have a lot of land to move, you know, because of the tanks and vehicles, and on D–36...and then we went into combat right away. We relieved the 4th Infantry Division and then we were in the Hedgerows, and that was a rather unpleasant place.

NM: What does that mean, the Hedgerows?

DC: You've never seen...they had the...in Normandy, France, they have these...their like bushes. They're about twelve feet high. And the Ger...you don't know who's on the other side. The Germans could be on the other side and you'd be in a field here, and you wouldn't know. You couldn't see anybody or anything. But anyway, you know...scar...I was telling Rob, the first night we were there, there was radio silence. In other words, the radios weren't operating yet. So our first sergeant said, All you SOBs, you're gonna do guard duty, 'cause we never did KP or guard duty. Radio operators were supposed to be on all day. And I told him, we...I went out in the field on guard duty, and I'll never forget how scared I was. The front...you hear all the cannons going, and machine gun fire. You know, you're...it's the baptism of fire, you might say. You're scared. And I told him, [if] my own grandmother was walking by, I woulda shot her. I would...you're so scared, you know. But you get used to the sound after a while, like you get used to being married. You get used to combat. And uh, from there we went...covered a lot of territory. We went through France, and we were in Patton's Third Army and he...he uh, liked our division because he knew our General. And we had the Colonel, by the way, that came from Agawam, Massachusetts. His name was Abrams, Creighton W. Abrams.

NM: What was his first name?

DC: Creighton. The Germans thought he was Jewish, you know, with a name like Abrams. In fact, when we were on maneuvers, I asked him one day, I says, you know...he was a captain, and I said, I thought you were one of our boys. He says, he thinks there was a little Jew boy hanging around somewhere in England. That's how...they were...he was from England, his family. But anyway, he was a great officer. He became a General, Chief of Staff, four–star General. He was a marvelous person, besides being a good Gen...uh, officer. But anyway, through Fr...we went through France, and we were around the Metz area, around Nancy and Villers. That's the eastern part of France. We got word...

NM: Did you say the Metz area?

DC: Yeah, Metz. M–E–T–Z.

NM: Okay. I just want to make sure I have it correct for our record.

Interview Clip #5:
Belgium, Germany, Axis Sally, and Picking Up an Escaped Russian Soldier

Audio also available in MP3 format

DC: And they said we had to go up towards Belgium. We didn't know what was going on yet. And we had to...I was telling him...we had to take off all our patches, you know, with insignias, and paint all the...the letters off our vehicles, that said, like, headquarters, you know, seven...704th tank destroyer or whatever outfit it was. Had to paint...we had to put white paint. I was trying to think of what you call it. But anyway, we had to paint everything, and we had to go up towards Belgium. And it was radio silence, so when it was radio silence, we turned in good music. It was either the BBC or Axis Sally, the German. And we put Axis Sally on, I remember. She played real good jazz and music we enjoyed. And then she gets on and she says, you know, 4th Armored Division, we know where you are. You're near Longueville, Belgium. And that was where we were. There was a Longwy, France, and a Longueville, Belgium. We were right there. Now how...I guess they must've had people, you know, some of the farmers would, uh, were working for the German army. So, uh, we got uh...nothing happened, except...

NM: What did that feel like when you heard that over the radio?

DC: Well, we laughed. It was a joke to us, that we were 'sposed to erase all our identification. But anyway, it was very cloudy and snowy, awful cold. And uh, the German planes came out, but the American planes didn't. The weather was so bad. But, Christmas day, you know, the Christian guys said we prayed Chris...the sun came out. And the American planes came out to uh, escort us, you know.

NM: Was that 1943?

DC: It was forty..let's see, let's see...'44. It was just the end of '43 and the beginning of '44. It was uh, New Years. We were in Belgium for New Year's in '43. And it was cold and snowy. We went up, and it was...it was pretty rough up in Belgium. The weather and, you know, all the circumstances. But from there, we went to our first rest period in January, in Luxembourg. We were there, oh, for weeks. And I was telling Rob the nice people I met in, in Luxembourg. We were in a little town called Esch Alzette [Esch–sur–Alzette]. That means, on the Alzette River. And then from there we went...in Bitburg, we kicked off into Germany. And we went through Germany rather rapidly. And when we...at the end...before we went into Germany, we picked up a Russian soldier, uh, who had escaped a um, a labor camp. And he told us about what was going on in a camp, a labor...we call concentration camp. He told...he said it was a labor camp. We had some Russian Polish soldi...GIs that would interpret. That's how I knew what he was saying. I couldn't understand him.

NM: Want did he tell you?

DC: That...it was horrible, what was going on. That there was torture of all kinds in the camp. And I...before we went, I always tell a story. We were in Toule, France. T–O–U–L–E. And there was someone there that was persecuted, a Jew, by the Nazis. I met him. He showed me, there was a synagogue, a little synagogue, in Toule, France. And I went in there, and I remember going through there. The Germans had used it to store their ammunition. And they threw all the Bibles around, you know. They didn't care, of course. And I took a Bible. I was gonna take it and bring it to my mother as a souvenir, you know. We always looked for souvenirs. And I remember walking down the street, and I thought, this Jewish guy...if any of the Jews come back, they're gonna need this Bible more than my mother. I remember walking back and putting it back in the...in the little synagogue. It's funny how you remember these things. They stand out in your mind.

Interview Clip #6:
Ohrdruf,General Eisenhower, General Bradley

Audio also available in MP3 format

DC: And...well, from...that was Toule. From there, we went into, I told you, Belgium, and then Germany. We went through Germany and it was April...5th. We got a radio message that there was a communication center that had to be taken. And they said we had an Infantry Battalion in our armored division, part of it. And they went and they radioed back that it wasn't a communication center, but a concentration camp. And this was in a place called Ohrdruf, Ohrdruf, Germany, outside of Gotha, G–O–T–H–A. And they said to send all the medi...medics, all the doctors, the nurses. We had a field hospital attached to the division. They sent all the medics there. Well, we went in and, you know, about an hour or so later, and when we got to the camp, there were about sixty bodies, and you'll see the pictures I gave you...pictures [garbled]...sixty, about sixty bodies just strewn all over the place. They were either shot in the back or clubbed to death. They were people that would survive. And what the Germans did, they loaded a couple trucks that they had with the survivors and they took'em to another camp. They didn't want them to be liberated even...even at the end. When we got there, we saw the bodies were still warm. And they were...there was pools of blood. The clubbed them and shot them in the back, machine gunned them. And they took so many of them, they moved them to another camp, to a camp where there was like a gas chamber. This was a small camp. It didn't have much. But what they did, they burned them on a hill. There's pictures that...shown there. But anyway, we stayed there about an hour, you know. We spoke to some of the...the few Jewish survivors. But most of them were either Gypsies or Belgian, French, Polish, Russians, lot of Polish there in the...in the camp. And we left, that was April 5th, and we went about another week. In fact, it was April 12th. I remember I was on the radio. We got a...we heard that President Roosevelt died, and then we were right outside of Buchenwald, near Weimar, Germany, where the constitution was formed. And we went into the camp. The Sixth Armored Division was there before us. And we went into the camp and we saw thousands...this was a major camp. There were maybe fifty, sixty thousand survivors there. In fact, that's where Elie Weisel was when we got there. I never met him, but he was in one of the barracks. And uh, I took pictures there with my friend. We went into the...into the rooms were the bodies were staying. I have to go back to Ohrdruf...When I went...we were there only an hour or so, and it was a memorandum...

NM: At Ohrdruf...

DC: At Ohrdruf, the other camp. There was a memorandum from General Eisenhower, that he wanted all available troops to see the concentration camp, to see why we were fighting. When we got there, naturally, you know, take a, a half...a few days off, a few hours off from the radio. We went in there, and ...we were walking around. We saw General Eisenhower came in with General Bradley and a few other officers. And ...he went into this room and he got sick. He came out, and he said ...he can't understand killing children. He says, the senseless thing, he says, can you think of one of these young people that were killed could've been a scientist that found a cure for cancer. I remember him saying that.

Interview Clip #7:
More Memories of Ohrdruf (very graphic)

Audio also available in MP3 format

DC: And I went into this room where the bodies were piled up like...you'll see in pictures...like wood. And I got sick. And my friend who was a Catholic from uh, Hungaria...Catholic from Pennsylvania. He says, Dave, you have to go in and take these pictures, 'cause people aren't gonna believe what you tell them. And I took these pictures, and when I came to America, I didn't even show'em to my mother or sisters. I just put them away. It was too horrible of an experience. When we went to the camp and Patton came in, and he went in and saw the bodies piled up, and he came out and he threw up, this macho general. And he got up on his jeep, and I want to tell you what he said. He said...he starts screaming at the top of his voice. Now mind you, Generals Eisenhower and General Bradley were standing there. And he gets up and he says, see what these son–of–a–bitches did? See what these bastards did? He says, I don't want you to take a f'n prisoner, he yells to us. You know, ...would violate all the Geneva Convention, but uh, that's the way he felt. And you know, I can say one thing. There was never any of the soldiers that went into the camp will ever deny that the Holocaust happened, you know, and how a doctor from our outfit, a Dr. Scotty, one of the doctors. He s...he was besides [sic] himself. He stood in the middle of the street and he starts screaming. He says, now I know how the Germans found the cure for malaria and typhus. He says, they killed them...they burned them. You know...it was...it was something. The smell was so horrible. In fact, we had the...this Colonel Sears made the mayor and the people of Ohrdruf come and see the camp. And the mayor comes up to him and says, well I didn't know what was going on. So Colonel Sears says, you're a lying son–of–a–bitch. He says, the smell alone will tell you what was go...it was awful. I can't describe the smell. It was so penetrating, horrible. And you saw all these bodies, you know, that they died of uh, malaria, typhus, malnutrition, and the bodies just rotted there. And, you know, when we looked at it, you see men, women, and children all piled up, and I tell...when I go around speaking to the students and people, I tell them that it wasn't only Jews. You know, there were six million Jews killed the camp, but there were five–and–a–half million non–Jews in the camp. He killed Gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, Catholic, Protestants, that, you know, were dissidents, political prisoners, Polish, Russians. He killed...people that he didn't like. And he didn't like Slavic people, so he was gonna, you know, build a wall to...You know, he was gonna build a wall between East Germany and West...uh...East Europe and West Europe to separate the Eastern Europeans, the Slavs, from the Western. It was in, uh, his book, Mein Kampf. And I tell the people that for the six million Jews, a million and a half were children. And that's effective for the kids, when you go into the schools. Children, anywhere from young infants to eighteen. A million and half children out of the six million Jews. But anyway, we went through the camp and we...there was a guy from the Sixth Armored Division, he took us around. And he took us into a room. In fact, it was about this size [gesturing about the room], a little larger. There were all kinds of lampshades, pocketbooks. They were made from human skin. And paintings made from human skin. The commandant's wife, her name was Ilse Koch, was uh, some kind of a sadist, I guess. And she took the skin of the corpses and made lampshades and pocketbooks and canvases for paining. They caught her later on. The called her "the Bitch of Buchenwald." But there were...it was...you wonder how people could do it, you know. I was telling Rob how wherever I went, I met nice people. But there had to be a lot of miserable people.

Interview Clip #8:
Kids with Bazookas, Dealing with Anger, "you lose some of your humanity"

Audio also available in MP3 format

Well anyway, from there, we went...we left Buchenwald after about a day or two, and we went through Germany. And the war ended. The was practically over then. I could never understand how the Germans even...you know...we went through the...they fired from uh, old farm houses, and there were kids, 14 years old, with bazookas shooting at our tanks and our vehicles, you know.

NM: German kids?

DC: German kids. They were, you know, the Hitler [garbled]...and, uh, what, they were...guys would just put a machine gun to'em. But they were...you know, you talk about suicide bombers in, in uh, in the Arabic countries. Here you had the kids, 14 year olds. They were brainwashed. And the war was...in fact, the Germans soldiers, the Wehrmacht, they were giving up by the tens of thousands. We didn't know what to do with them. They were marching on their own to the POW camps. But the...lot of civilians were die–hard Nazis.

NM: How did soldiers respond to children with guns?

DC: They shot'em. They...I mean, it was either them or us, you might say. But uh...not a pleasant thought. Thank God there weren't too many. Some of the old farmers were shooting from uh...and uh, Colonel Abrams, he would tell us on the radio, if they didn't give up, he would...you know, we'd have an interpreter and loud speaker, and they would ask the town to give up. And if they didn't want to give up within a certain time, he told us, tell everybody to use phosphorus. That burned...just burn the town down. The phosphorus shells, they set...it sets fires. It wasn't pleasant.

NM: When you left...when you left the camps...Are you s...are you saying you went...you just continued working?

DC: Yeah, we went...yeah, we just left, but we were all stunned. And, 'course, you're angry, and, you know...you want to...you feel like you want to kill everybody...on the other side.

NM: So, what do you do with that?

DC: Nothing. We just went, uh...some of the guys...there were stories of uh, the 45th Infantry Division, they were in Dachau, and one of them, I don't know what, if he was Jewish or not, but he took...we never found any of the prisoners...any of the guards. They all ran. But at Dachau, they caught so many of them. And this one soldier lined them up on a wall where they used to execute the...

NM: An Allied soldier?

DC: Yeah, oh yeah, an American. And he lined them up, and he machine gunned them. And an officer came and just...not...you're not supposed to do it, of course. And he knocked the gun...I remember reading about it. I didn't, you know, know it or see it. But, uh, we had cases where there was one of the fellas...in fact, he was a hillbilly from one of the...down South. He...would capture a couple German soldiers, and he'd say, okay, you can escape. Run! And when they ran, he shot'em. But there're, you know, all kind of atrocities, you know, you read about this...this stuff now in Iraq. I can feel for those soldiers. You know, it's not right what they do. But you lose some of your humanity. I guess that's why Rob...Rob Wilson has his boys go around, to tell what war is like. You know, you lose...you feel like you want to kill everybody or do it, and if you see one of your buddies killed...like, one of my best friends, Ernie Ruggierio was killed. We picked him up three days later. He was starting to turn black, you know? And, I cried. I remember I cried like my own family. And, uh, you get bitter. You want to kill everyone that was on the other side.

NM: How long does that feeling stay with you?

DC: Oh it goes...it passes. Thank God, it...not with me, it didn't last long. Just like now, when I get mad at someone, it goes by fast.

Interview Clip #9:
David's Photos; Speaking to Students about the Holocaust; Watching Nazis Getting Beaten Up; The Word "Hate"

Audio also available in MP3 format

NM: How long was it before you took out those photos after you came home?

DC: Oh, years. I didn't show'em to anybody. But then I...didn't tell you the rest of my story. When I got out of the Army, I went back to school, and I took education courses and then I took the exam in New York City and became a social studies teacher in junior high, the world's worst place to teach, junior high. I can tell you what my assistant principal said. He says, the worst high school...the worst high school is better than the best junior high. But anyway, I survived twenty years of teaching in junior high. And when I was there, you know, you taught American history and I told the kids about the war, and I showed pictures to my fellow teachers. And one day, Kenny Berson, one of the teachers says, why don't you show it to the chil...kids, you know?

NM: The photographs that you had taken during the war?

DC: Yeah, yeah. And uh, it's the set I have that I gave to you. The originals my daughter has...she made a uh, what do you call, a CD for it so when I go around, I don't need the projector anymore. But anyway, uh, I showed the kids. And when I moved here, I worked as an aide in one of the schools in Washington...Street School in Springfield. And uh, teacher said, ...why don't you have slides made of these, you know? And I did, and I met another fella through the Jewish Community Center. He was a...a French Canadian Catholic who was in the camp. And he had taken pictures of this camp Dora in Nordhausen. And we went around for about 17 years, and we'd show the kids. Our main theme was not just to show the Holocaust, but why the Holocaust occurred. Hate. And our theme was to eliminate hate. [garbled] We'd tell the kids, here he's Catholic and I'm Jewish and we became close, like brothers, you know. But it doesn't make any difference; if you're a human being, you either like or dislike somebody. But you don't hate anybody. And that was the theme, you know, because I, I learned that. In fact, I tell a story. There was...an incident in Czechoslovakia where the...the Czechs...am I over? [referring to the time]...the Czechs, uh, picked up three SS soldiers from the woods. And, um, one of them was a school teacher, and his father wanted to know if he was killed or tortured by them. And, when he got them, they beat up the three Nazis, and we watched it. And we...it was...they were our prisoners, not the Czechs'. And I should have taken them and brought them to, you know, POW camp. But I sat there...I stood there and I actually enjoyed watching these people...they dropped rocks on their heads. They kicked them, you know? And I actually enjoyed...and I went back to the barracks that night, and one of the radio operators, Lefkowitz, I said, Lefty, I said, you know, I'm sick. I stood there and I actually hated. It got the best of me. I says, I'm never gonna use the word "hate" again. I remember what it did. It...it...it...I couldn't sleep, it upset me so much, that I was so, you know, angry, that I lost my humanity, you might say. And uh, that's when I...I still go around to the schools...not often...I, I'm getting a little too old for that. And, uh, but you...I think I've spoken...between Donald [Gosselin] and myself, tens and tens of thousands of children all through the Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, wherever this gentleman will take me. But, uh...and I think it did some good. Children were very receptive; with the letters we got...you could tell. And the teachers would tell us how much the children, you know, what they got out of it.

Interview Clip #10:
Holocaust Deniers

Audio also available in MP3 format

NM: What do you say when you hear that some people...or maybe they say it to you...what do you hear...what do you say when people say that the Holocaust never happened?

DC: [laughs] It makes me angry and annoyed. And I tell them, you know, I show pictures and pictures if they do...but...our division was invited to the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. My daughter at that time lived in Maryland, you know, so I went there and I went...took her, in fact. We went to the opening. President Clinton spoke and Elie Wiesel, and others. And, it was raining, a nasty day, and I remember outside the...where the speakers were, there were twelve, about a dozen port–a–johns, and naturally, I had to go. I bought hot chocolate, that's what it was. It was a cold nasty day. And I saw right by there, they were picketing. They had signs, the skinheads and neo–Nazis, and they had signs: "Six Million Lies", "Jews are cockroaches", and they were walking right along side the port–a–johns. So I went over to a cop. I says...I showed him...I had the pictures, my pictures, and I says, I'd like to show them these pictures, to show them that it happened. Naturally, I couldn't do it. And I said, I feel like going over and punching them in the nose, too. And I asked the cop, how come you got'em walking along side the port–a–johns? I says, that's very appropriate, with the rest of the crap. But it was just the sidewalk. But, uh, it is sickening. These people, they know it happened. They believe it. But, they don't...but they wanna...they're glad it happened. And they want people to think, you know, the Jews are six million cockroaches, lies. But, uh...So there are people like that still in America. Well, where I lived in this Ridgewood area in Brooklyn, where I lived, it was on the border of Queens. They had a Nazi party there, a Nazi group. They used to walk around and, and uh, in brown shirts with swastikas, you know, and they'd get...and there was a social democratic club, old Germans. And my father's friends, they were...

NM: That was back in the 30s?

DC: Yeah, well, 30s, early 40s. They uh, they broke their window all the time. They were throwing'em in the streets, you know, people don't realize. But we...Nazis...It was a...might say a Fascist group in this country. You've heard of Father Coughlin. There was uh, the "American First" group [referring to "America First"]...they were really, you know, uh, a Fascist...they were what we call Nazis today, in those days. Fr. Coughlin...did you ever hear of him? He had a radio program. "Social Justice", he called it, with the newspaper. And he was very aggressive at first, you know, social justice. Little by little, it came out how anti–Semitic he was. In fact, the pope, the papacy shut him up. He was...I don't know if he was defrocked, but he was sent to Siberia somewhere in America. But uh, it was an active group. It was...a lot of anti–Semitism and uh, the country was on the brink. It could have gone Fa...people don't realize it, but it's a good thing someone like Roosevelt came along, and then...balance. But there was a lot of Fascism. In fact, there was a book by Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here. You might want to get a hold of it and read it. How, you know, what happened with the...a Fascist Nazi group took over. I think the name was Winthrop. I don't know how I remember, but I...

NM: Good memory.

DC: It's amazing how I remember certain things. But I forgot to take out the garbage this morning.

Everyone laughs.

DC: All right...

Interview Clip #11:
Later Life, Another Memory of WWII

Audio also available in MP3 format

NM: Um...would you talk a little bit about...I'm afraid we're going to run out of time.

DC: Yeah, well I talk too much. The kids used to call me the preacher in school.

NM: [laughs] Would you talk a little bit about your role in the Jewish community in your later life, or throughout your life?

DC: Well, I never was religious, 'cause I believe if you have religion in your heart, if you have decency in your heart, you're religious. You know, I don't have to beat my chest or go on my hands and knees or anything, but that's my own belief. It was my father's belief. And, uh, I never belonged to a synagogue until I moved here, in Springfield. Oh by the way, I taught...for the twenty years and then I retired...Upstate New York. I had a house. I had a piece of land in the Catskill Mountains, in a real mountain area. And I moved up there. And I lived there with my wife for seven years. And, uh, my wife became ill, and my daughter said, you can't live up there in the wilderness. Move here to Massachusetts. And we moved to Springfield. Uh, but I was working, too, at the time. I couldn't just do nothing, not to live on a teacher's pension. And anyway, I worked in a hospital. I watched the monitors in the coronary care unit for seven years. And I do a little of everything, you know? What do they say, a jack of all trades and a master of nothing. But anyway, I thought I was a pretty good teacher. The kids liked me, so...I enjoyed teaching. And when I moved here, I didn't know what to do. I was in my sixties, but I went to work as a paraprofessional in the school, same school where my daughter taught. And, uh, I taught special service kids that were...they were incorrigible. I had the experience from New York, the scars to show for it. But anyway, I enjoyed teaching, and I enjoyed going around. I'm active in the Jewish Community Center. I use their athletic exercise there, and I volunteer. My wife worked in the kitchen, in the Meals on Wheels program. We did a lot of volunteer work. In fact, Mr. Grinspoon gave me an award just a couple months ago. The, I don't know what they called it, but I got an award. I found out it was a cash award. I was pleasantly surprised. I never made any money on the deal, you know. All right...

NM: Well...

DC: What else would you like hear?

NM: I guess I'll back up because Rob gave me a question that I, uh, didn't know before hand. I was wondering if you'd talk about landing at Normandy. You...

DC: Well we landed D–36.

NM: You sort of talked about it. That, that was the landing you were talking about.

DC: Yeah, we landed...we went of course, from Plymouth, and there was really...we just had, you know, it was around Saint Mere Eglise where the 82nd Airborne landed. But, you know, when we landed, there was...just two German planes went over and the anti–aircraft chased them away so, we, you know...it wasn't uh, a dangerous, a really dangerous mission like D–Day. And when we went over, by the way, there was a little ins...we went on a LST. It's a landing ship tank, and uh, we left from Plymouth and we were overnight, and I was on my friend's uh, truck, on the top, the canvas. And a sailor comes over and...sailor comes over and said, anybody here from Brooklyn? I said, I'm from Brooklyn. He says, what section of Brooklyn? I says, oh, you wouldn't know it. He says, let me know. Where...what street? So I says, well, I lived on a place, Stanhope Street. This kid lived around the corner! He was a Polish kid, and my father was his glazier. He did work at his house. So, he says, what are you eating? I had the K rations. He says, you don't have to eat that junk. And he went down, and he got my friend, my buddy and myself pork chops. Don't tell the Rabbi I ate it...the pork chops. [laughter] But anyway, he went home. He told my mother that he saw me, and I was all right. I was going overseas. You know, the sailors have leave. But anyway, he told me he was on D–Day, and they brought the...you know, brought soldiers in to the landing on D–Day. And he said, then they took him in, all the wounded. And the...I don't know if you know what a...a landing ship tank has a big hole at the bottom where tanks and trucks go in, you know. And they put the bod...they put the wounded soldiers there. And he said he could hear these kids, eighteen, nineteen–year–old kids yelling, mama, mama, my leg! They, you know, they'd lost limbs and whatnot. He said...and this kid was only nineteen years old himself. He said it was an awful experience.

Interview Clip #12:
Izzy (part 1)

Audio also available in MP3 format

NM: I want to back up a little, again, and ask, did you make friends with any prisoners that you liberated?

DC: No. No. We...I never really had much to do with it. When I was going home, uh, they waited...we were in the camp, you know, called Lucky Strike in La Havre, France. And they were waiting on us, you know, uh, [garbled]

RW: The "Izzy" story...

DC: Oh. Well, when the war ended...when the war ended, I told you we were in southern France...uh, southern Germany. No, we were in Czechoslovakia, rather. And then from Czechoslovakia we went to occupy a certain area in southern Germany around the Regensburg area. Well, we had enough points...I had the five battle stars and I had a bronze star, and so many months in service. So I had...we went home by points. I don't know if you ever heard of it. They gave one point for each service, five points for each medal, five points for each combat medal, and so I had enough points to come home. And half...most of us did, anyway. And they divided our division to...into two branches: one went to the 9th Armored Division, and one to the 16th. They were going home. My division was staying in Germany as occupying troops. We didn't want to stay any longer. So, they put me in with the 16th Armored, and I ended up in [a town in] Czechoslovakia, where we were getting trains to go to La Havre, France. And while we there, they put us up in nice hotels in Marianbar. That was a resort. It was German and Czech...had two names, a German name and a Czech name. But anyway, we saw a USO show. It was a Hungarian circus ? good! And I came out, and it was dark, and all the hotels looked alike, you know? I see a kid walking in the street with American uniform on, you know, a GI clothing. So I walk over to him and I said, Sprechen sie deutsche? You know, do you speak German? And he looks at me. He says [in Yiddish], Ich sprach Yiddish echert. That means, I speak Jewish, too. [laughs] [Cohen later spelled the words to the best of his knowledge of Yiddish which, he said, "is pretty rusty now and was never great to begin with."] So he looked at my map of Jerusalem. So we start talking. He was a 16–year–old kid. His name was Izzy. And he told me a story. He was 12–and–a–half when they took him out of this little schtetl, this village in Poland. And, uh, he went all through the camps. He had a mother and father, three sisters and two brothers. They were all wiped out. He was the only one...survived. He was in a camp. He was a tough kid, you know? He said he had a bullet in his leg one time, a little .22. And he dug it out with a spoon, you know? And he told me that he...he befriended...you mentioned meeting Ger...talking to Germans. He befriended one of the soldiers in the camp. It was the SS. He...they hit him with the butt of a rifle. I don't know how he survived, but he was a tough kid. Twelve–and–a–half when he went in. And he was 16 then. He was in four years. And he started telling me this story, how he went from one camp to another, and when he befriended this one German guard. He was a Wehrmacht, an elderly soldier. He took a liking to Izzy. He gave him an extra piece of bread or something. That's how that he survived.

Interview Clip #13:
Izzy (part 2)

Audio also available in MP3 format

DC: And, uh, one day he went over to Izzy and he said, you better try to escape. He says, they're moving all...this is what the Germans did. He says, they're moving all the people from the camp into Althausen, where there was a gas chamber. And they gonna gas'em, rather than let them live...the same incident I told you in Ohrdruf. Rather than let these people live, they machined them. Here, they moved them to other camps where they could gas them. So Izzy became friendly with another kid, and uh...Mit...Morty, his name was. And he said to Morty, look, they're gonna put us in the...they put them in these cattle cars. And there was a window about this big [gesturing]. And there was chicken wire on them. He said that there was no wire on the window. And he told Morty, he says, when the train goes around the bend, we'll jump out. The reason then, there's a guard on top of the train, and if anyone tried to jump out, they would shoot them. But he...when they went around the bend, they would be here [gesturing], the other part of the train would be here, you know? So, he says, jump out and roll into a ditch. He was a little kid. He was, you know, what we call "street wise" but he survived. And, he...they jumped and then they wandered through uh, had to be Germany. They wandered through Germany. They went into a farm house. They told them they were two Polish kids that escaped. And the farmer took'em in and put them in the barn. And they wanted to shower, and when they took a shower, the farmer saw they were Jewish. [gesturing to RW] He didn't understand that. I had to explain it to him. But anyway, and he says, you better leave, 'cause if they ever catch me with you, they'll kill me. So he...they start wandering around, and they were picked up by an American field artillery outfit. And there were two Jewish kids in there. One was the mess sergeant, and they took'em, and they worked with the Jewish kid...the camp...the American kids in the...while they were going through Germany. And the two Jewish kids wrote to their fathers and asked them if they would sign these kids...you know, in order to come to America, someone had to sign for them. They couldn't come here, you know, as a burden on the state. So they signed and, uh, one of them went...Morty came to America, and he found out through the Red Cross that his mother and sister had survived. And they were in...with relatives with an uncle in Toronto, Canada. So he went to Toronto, Canada. Izzy went to...outside of Boston. The father of one of the soldiers that picked him up was...had a Kosher butcher. And he worked there. And he wrote to me and called me. I had given him my address, you know. And he wrote me that he didn't like Boston. He had trouble...he said they called him a dirty Jew. But he was paranoid. If he heard the word "Jew", he'd be ready to fight, no matter what they said. And uh, he came to New York, HIAS [Hebrew Immigration Aid Society]. That's a Hebrew group that found jobs for people. And he worked as an apprentice in the Bronx as a painter. And he called me up, and I picked him up one Friday night. My mother made a nice chicken dinner for him, you know. And he slept over, and I took him back to the Bronx Saturday morning. And then he called me up. He didn't like New York. He had a fight with some Puerto Ricans. They made fun of him. He was reading the Jewish paper. How much tru...the truth you didn't know. You know, he wasn't lying, but he was, like I said, he was paranoid, so he might have made up story, imagined. And he went back to Roxborough, Boston area, and I lost track of him. Now this was like in 1949...'48...49. And I lost track of Izzy. And one day, we went to Alaska with the Jewish Community Center. And a woman comes up to me. She says, you know, you and your friend Donald Gosselin [are] doing wonderful things, going around speaking to kids about the Holocaust. She says, my brother and his friend picked up two Jewish kids who escaped the camps and brought him to America. I says, geez, that sounds like Izzy. She says, I think his name was Izzy, but he changed it in America. So she gave me his name and address, and I wrote him a long letter describing how I met Izzy, like I told you. And I get...come home one night and my wife says, there was a call from Izzy. He was crying over the phone, he finally found a cou...a relative. He considered me a relative. He had nobody. So, I called him up. Sure enough, it was Izzy, and my grandson graduated high school, so I invited him and his wife. He got married. He had two children...three children. And uh, he came down with his wife, and we met. And we started going around together, you know. He came into Springfield a few times, and then he ca...he came down with cancer. And he died, too. We went to see him. They were...they moved from Quincy to uh, Fox...what is it? Foxboro? And, but anyway, he had no relatives, so he put his name, original name, Wisnowski [the spelling, as David Cohen recalls it]...and he found there was a Wisnowski in Australia. And he called the guy up. Guy says no, I never had relatives in concentration camp. And one day, he gets a call from Antwerp, Belgium. A young fella says, I'm your cousin. [And that was the only real relative Izzy ever found after the war.]

 

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