Archive for June, 2020

My heart is broken.

My dear friend Lily Cohen passed away two weeks ago at her home in Tel Aviv. I think today would have been her birthday. And I have been struggling to find the words ever since.


Lily came into my life with an email ten years ago. My friend Varda had tracked her down from a book written by a woman who had brought her young son and several orphan children to the fledgling state of Israel. In one of the first Holocaust survivor memoirs, Hilde Huppert describes the precocious young Lily, perhaps four years of age in 1945, persuading her to reluctantly accompany her on the Train Near Magdeburg with her young son Tommy.



“Knowing that I will forever be loved and never be forgotten”….

Lily’s father was killed in Warsaw. Her mother died trying to care for her in Bergen-Belsen. In a complicated story, her mother paid a man, fellow prisoner, to pretend—he had papers for a wife and child, who had since died— that Lily’s mom was his wife their three or four-year-old daughter. Lily’s mother shortly got sick and died in Bergen-Belsen. The man then ignored and essentially abandoned Lily in the exchange camp.

She did not remember much about her early life—flashes in black and white, a later writer put it—people running in Warsaw, loud noises and booms, her mother screaming, soldiers. Flashes of a long journey on a train, her mother carrying her into a cold shower, then her mother being gone. Not understanding, protesting at her blonde locks being lopped off by women in the women’s barracks, who had decided to care for her, in the effort to rid her of lice. Later, she recalled snippets of being placed on another train transport, which turned out to be the Train Near Magdeburg liberated by American GIs on April 13, 1945.

The group of orphans led by Hilde Huppert made it to Israel via France after a long journey, one of the first ships carrying survivor refugees. Lily was adopted on a kibbutz and raised in a loving family; I met her adoptive mother at near 100 years old in that very home outside of Jerusalem in 2011, a pioneer of early childhood education in the new state. Like Lily, she radiated goodness and love, and it was important to Lily that I meet her.

You see, my life had taken a turn where I was engaged in connecting Holocaust survivors with their American soldier liberators. I was in Israel that time to watch 55 or 60 survivors have the opportunity to meet liberator Frank Towers. But I had met Lily the year before, when she was in New York and wanted to journey the four hours north to specifically meet ME. She just had to meet me—not a soldier, not a liberator, not another survivor—ME.

She came with her friend Lynda, and as it happened, almost exactly ten years ago, she was also set to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. She had questions about her early life, having been born in Poland to secular Jewish parents, but not even entirely sure of her actual birth date. Some of my friends at the Museum found the documentation to help her on that journey, so I think she would have turned just 79 or so this year, which is pretty young for a Holocaust survivor. In fact I think her birthday would have been next week.

She was young, beautiful, blonde, so vital and full of life. We had lunch on a steamboat cruise on Lake George, and I arranged for her to be interviewed by my college alma mater magazine, in town for a piece on me and the train. My friend John and his family arranged for her to have a private tour at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga the next day: she was a dancer of some renown herself, you see, followed by a special dinner put on by John at his exclusive restaurant.

Me and Lily, Lake George, NY, June 24, 2010.

I saw her the next year in Israel, bringing along my 10 year old son. She zipped us along in her car, laughing, telling stories, joking that if she got pulled over for speeding she would bat her long eyelashes admiringly at the traffic officer, give him “Look #9”, and get off scot-free.  I also got to meet her girlfriends and two of her granddaughters, I think both at the time serving in the IDF. On the way to Jerusalem we stopped at the kibbutz, still perched on a hillside above and Arab village, having survived the 1948 war as well. Imagine being a young girl, Holocaust survivor, and now being subjected to another war, all before age ten. She looked fondly after my son, encouraging him to drink, drink, drink more water, as it was May in Israel and we were about to embark in the desert of the Holy Land to the fortress at Masada.

I saw her again in 2016 as I studied at Yad Vashem. I purposely came early to Tel Aviv to see her, because I knew that my three-week course would leave no room for much personal time. I was there to study the Holocaust.

But Lily never let the Holocaust define her. She told me she grew up a happy child, perhaps being so young a survivor, but there were times in her life when she felt there was something different about her. Later, she wanted to know. Maybe she saw some of that in me. At her death, her friend Lynda told me that I had made an enormous difference in her life, “Enormous beyond belief… You are Lily’s savior…”

I so wanted to take my wife to Israel to meet her again there. We were supposed to see her in Germany this past April 2020 for the 75th anniversary of the liberation, but we all know that got pushed off. Now I will never see her again, but I won’t let her be forgotten.

I will leave you with the chapter in my book, A Train Near Magdeburg, dedicated to her. Goodbye, young girl. I will see you again someday, hand in hand.

Lily meets one of her liberators, Frank Towers, in Israel, 2011.


Lily introduces us to a friend and her mother, Israel, 2011.


Me and lily a year after our first meeting, now on her home turf, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2011.


The Orphan

Hello, Matthew,

My name is Lily Cohen and I was a little girl who was on that train coming from Bergen-Belsen. I was an orphan, probably about five or six years old at that time. I don’t know my birthday, or year I was born. For so many years I didn’t talk about my childhood even with my children; deep, deep, down I had the feeling that something was probably very wrong with me, something I should be ashamed of.

I am so moved to find this research, as most of my early life appeared to be ‘erased’ somehow by the Holocaust, and only now am I able to take small steps into what was my past to piece together fragments of memories. I remember the train. I remember the hill, I remember a German soldier running away, and I remember a woman who was trying to take care of me, dying at my side.

Tonight, I made dinner for 10 people in my home in Tel Aviv – six of whom came from me! My life has turned into a really wonderful victory over Hitler’s attempt to obliterate the Jewish people.

You are really doing a holy work and I do hope to meet you some day. Amazing how things can come together when there are people dedicated to finding out ‘the rest of the story.’ Thank you for your dedication.


Still youthful and vivacious, Lily Cohen defies any mental stereotype of ‘Holocaust survivor’ with her presence, grace, and humor. Lily and I did meet, on several occasions; she came over to the United States to have dinner with my wife and me. Later, I arranged an interview for her at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and they had done their homework, having researched her actual date of birth. I visited Lily in Israel in 2011, and again in 2016.

Like many of the survivors I know who were liberated on the train, Lily speaks to students. We had lunch, and she told me of her latest encounter with at-risk teens at a teen center in Jaffa outside of Tel Aviv. Before her presentation, they had self-segregated by group—Israeli-Ethiopian teens, Israeli-Russian teens, Jewish and Arab teens. And here she was, a survivor of the Holocaust, and a survivor of the War for Independence as a pre-teen in 1948-49, when the kibbutz that adopted her came under attack.

She measured the kids up quickly, and spoke directly to their own experiences with alienation from larger society:

Maybe you are feeling like an outsider in a world that seems hostile, but you do not have to be a victim. I did not look like the rest of the children—I was blonde and blue-eyed. I did not want to play piano as a youngster; I wanted to dance. I did not know my parents; I did not know my past. But I made my way, became a professional dancer, and built a strong family. Maybe you can make your way, too.

A forty-five-minute talk turned into over two hours from the heart of Lily Cohen, World War II orphan, Holocaust survivor, stage dancer and choreographer, therapist, and Tai Chi master. From out of the ashes, new life begins; the kids hung on her every word as they accompanied Lily out to her car in the parking lot. Maybe here by the sea in the ancient port of Jaffa, a cool night breeze also blew in a new outlook on life.

Lily by friend Linda Wells. Linda on Lily: “Such a survivor… and I always told her, ‘Honey, you did more than just survive. You THRIVED!'”

Here is a link to an article published by my college alma mater, SUNY Geneseo, those 10 years ago. [Opens as PDF] Lily is a focus of the article.


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