Holocaust survivor Lady Kohn dies at 86

The Shoah educator's family narrowly escaped being sent to Auschwitz


Holocaust survivor Lady Zahava Kohn MBE has died one week shy of her 87th birthday.

The Shoah educator was born in Ramat Gan, in what was then Mandate Palestine, in 1935, but two years later her parents took the tragically misguided decision to move to the Netherlands in the hope the cooler climate might help her mother’s health.

They tried to get papers to leave, but once visas for Honduras eventually arrived it was too late to escape.

In 1943 the family was due to be deported, but managed to leave Lady Kohn’s younger brother Yehudi with a woman working with the Dutch resistance. She communicated with his parents in code and sent them a photo of the 16-month-old boy in a bag of beans to show he was fine.

Speaking to the JC in 2011, Lady Kohn said her family narrowly escaped deportation to almost certain death in Auschwitz.

“When they came to take us to Westerbork I had chicken pox and the guards wanted to send me on the train for sick people, separating me from my mother,” she said. 

“But I was hysterical and eventually they gave up trying. That probably saved my life and my parents. 

“When we left Westerbork, the only reason we did not go straight to Auschwitz was because I had British protection from being born in Palestine. If we had been separated, they would have been killed. 

“After four months in Westerbork, we were on the platform waiting for the train to Auschwitz and we were called back at the last second and told to stay. We stayed there five more months and then were sent to Bergen-Belsen.”

Though they had avoided the worst fate, imprisonment in the German concentration camp was a harrowing experience.

Lady Kohn’s family were held in the Star Camp, along with 4,000 other prisoners who the Nazi regime believed could be exchanged for German nationals imprisoned by the Allies.

"It was a brutal place, with many beatings,” Lady Kohn added.

“My father had his teeth all knocked out. There were no toilets and I shared a bunk with my mother. 

“She was very ill with typhoid and she had a bucket next to the bed because she couldn't make it outside to go to the toilet. 

“One day she knocked the bucket all over me. She was terrified because it was so infectious and we had nothing to wash with.”

In January 1945, the family were moved to Biberach internment camp. It was liberated by French troops three months later, and they were able to travel to meet Lady Kohn’s grandparents over the border in Switzerland. 

After they reached safety, she told the JC, “I spent a long time having treatments for my bad health. We were reunited with my brother after the war and he didn't know us. He called my mother 'mummy from Switzerland'.”

After a period of rehabilitation, Lady Kohn moved back to Amsterdam and then on to London in the early 1960s.

It was only in 2001 when her mother died that she discovered a collection of documents detailing the family’s wartime odyssey. 

Lady Kohn managed to piece together their story of survival and published it in 2010 as Fragments of a Lost Childhood. 

With her daughter Hephzibah, she created ‘Surviving the Holocaust’: an educational programme which they presented to schools across the UK and Germany.

In 2020, Lady Kohn was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list for her services to Holocaust education. She is survived by her three daughters Hephzibah, Michelle and Maxine, and five grandchildren. 

Yad Vashem UK said: "We are saddened to hear of the passing of Bergen Belsen survivor and Holocaust educator Lady Zahava Kohn MBE... May her memory be a blessing to all who knew her."

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