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Lady Zahava Kohn

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
Interview number:


Dr Bea Lewkowicz

Date of Interview:

Interview Summary:

Zahava’s father, Salke Kanarek, came from Dusseldorf and her mother came from Zurich, both from religious familes. They got married in Frankurt in 1932 and settled in Amsterdam, waiting for their papers to leave for Palestine. In 1935 they emigrated to Palestine. Zahava’s mother was in the late stage of pregnancy. Zahava was born on the 5th of August 1935 in Ramat Gan. It was not easy for her parents to get used to the conditions in Palestine and her father had to do manual work for a construction company. Due to her mother’s health, the family decided to come back to Europe in April 1937, where they settled again in Amsterdam. Zahava describes her happy childhood in Amsterdam, where she went to Jewish Kindergarten and her parents shielded her from the political situation and their worries. In 1943 the family was deported to Westerbork, leaving Zahava’s 16 month-old brother behind with a woman in the Dutch resistance

Because Zahava had been born in the British Mandate of Paestine, the family had a bit of protection. After four months in Westerbork, the family was taken off a train leaving to Auschwitz at the very last minute.  After another five months, they were sent to Bergen-Belsen.

In Bergen-Belsen, Zahava stayed together with her mother and she describes the harsh conditions, hunger and illnesses. At the end of January 1945 Zahava and her family were ‘exchanged’ and sent to Switzerland. Zahava suffered ill health and needed a extensive rehabilitation. The family was reunited with her brother and settled in Amsterdam. In the early sixties Zahava came to the UK and Rabbi Schonfeld offered her work as a nursery teacher. In March 1963 she married Dr Ralph Kohn (the late Sir Ralph Kohn), a pharmacologist and has lived in London ever since. She has three daughters and five grandchildren.

With her daughter Hephzibah Rudofsky, Zahava created the programme ‘Surviving the Holocaust’, which they have presented to many schools across the UK and Germany. At the end of the interview, Zahava and Hephzibah share their thoughts about their joint Holocaust education project. 


Full Interview


they [ her parents] had contact with somebody who was a …a non-Jewish lady who was working for the Resistance. And she was the lady who was instrumental in finding a place for my brother [who was a baby] to be hidden. And also he was very blond, blue-eyed, so they thought that would be very much easier than with me, being very dark- haired and dark-eyed. So they didn’t even think about me being hidden. But he was then sent to people out of Amsterdam. And…. I was told that whoever was going to ask me what had happened to my brother- because the people who knew my parents, they wouldn’t have asked. They knew what has happened. But people who didn’t know them I had to say that we had lost him somewhere on the way. And it was mainly after, when we went to Westerbork, really.

Every Monday night, all the cattle carts came… to the station. And there were always about two or three normal carriages. And I was suffering slightly of asthma. And I said to my mother or both my parents, “Can we please go a bit early?” - when I heard that we were going on the train, which, before then we had been told all the time, no transport for us. So I said, “Can we go a little bit early the next morning that we get a seat on one of the normal carriages?” - not knowing that that was for the SS. So my mother had to explain that to me, that we couldn’t go on one of those carriages. And literally the last minute before going on to that cattle cart- My parents had tried to organise that we were going with friends of theirs in the same cattle cart, because they were so taken aback that we were going to go- be sent to Auschwitz. And somebody said, “This is family Kanarek.” And the chap came to my parents and said, “I wish I had a message like this for more people, as I’ve got for you. You’ve been taken off this transport.” And my parents just couldn’t believe it. And literally, had he come a minute later, we would have been on one of the cattle carts. Nobody would have known where. And that would have been it!

Well we got in the morning [in Bergen-Belsen] a crust of… stale… bread. And this had to last until the evening. And and some liquid which they called coffee. Coloured- A coloured substance. And then in the evening, they gave something which they called a kind of soup or vegetables with turnips and water. And that was the eve- dinner. And that didn’t even always arrive, and, because sometimes there were bombings or so going on so they left that… out of …our hands.

And there [Stockholm, where Zahava's little brother stayed with the mother's cousin], which was fantastic how my mother managed that, because she was still weak, and having lost a sister in any case. And- But she wouldn’t give in. And so every day she wanted to go as soon as possible back to Amsterdam to be with my father, and that we should have a family. And so every day she organised for the three of us [mother, Zahava and the little brother]… walking together. Because he didn’t want to know from my mother. He had a mother in Holland, mother in Stockholm, now comes another one who calls herself his mother! So she started organising these walking trips and going to places, the three of us going together. And then she bought him a big balloon and he was very excited. He was a very young child. At that time, he was about six…six? Ja, six-and-a-half. And he was very upset. The balloon shrunk and became smaller and smaller. So my mother said, “You know what? Daddy in Amsterdam, he will be able to blow the balloon up for you and that it gets bigger again.” After that he didn’t want to wait; he wanted to go back the next day to Amsterdam. But in any case, we went back as soon as possible, and started …family life again.

In spite of all the terrible things that had happened. My mother’s sister having been killed and…but still they [her parents] were looking ahead and trying. And many of their friends hadn’t survived but still they were looking ahead. And I think also mainly to us as children, to give us a positive kind of feeling that we shouldn’t worry about all the things that we had passed.

And I came to visit her [her mother] in Herzliya, into this Dutch nursing home. And… just on that day, in the morning, she had passed away when I got there. So I was terribly, terribly upset of course. Because the day before I would have still seen her. But it was too late arriving, so I couldn’t. And I didn’t realise, or they didn’t realise, how ill she was. And so then I came back to the home, and to start sorting things out because they wanted to take over her room and so forth. And I could have just chucked everything away, because the clothes or anything didn’t mean anything to me I mean to keep. I didn’t have any…And I started emptying her cupboard, and found at the back of a cupboard, that small bag. …I can’t call it a suitcase. It was more like a soft bag. And I could have just chucked it! And I don’t know what made me open it and look what was inside. And when I opened it and saw some of the things which I hadn’t seen before, I couldn’t believe it! And then I started really looking at the things and...Oh, all the fragments. All the letters. Any kind of documentation which she had over the war years whether it was from Holland, from Westerbork, Bergen-Belsen. Whatever she had been given or had to do, signed. I mean it’s in my book! All these things were in there. The yellow star.

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