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Holocaust survivor to meet German president

Esthir Koen (90) is one of two Auschwitz survivors living in Ioannina

Esthir Koen (90) is one of two Jews living in Ioannina who survived the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz. On 25 March 1944, she was deported, along with almost the entire Jewish population of the town, some 1,850 men, women and children, by the Nazis to Auschwitz. Of that number, only 163 survived

A young woman cries during the deportation of the Jews of Ioannina, 25 March 1944 (Photo: German Federal Archive 101I-179-1575-08, Wikimedia Commons) A young woman cries during the deportation of the Jews of Ioannina, 25 March 1944 (Photo: German Federal Archive 101I-179-1575-08, Wikimedia Commons) Friday will be a difficult day for Esthir Koen, who will meet with the visiting German president, Joachim Gauck, in her native city of Ioannina, in the northwestern region of Eprius.

The 90 year old, who is also known as Stella, is one of two Jews living in Ioannina who survived the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz. On 25 March 1944, she was deported, along with almost the entire Jewish population of the town - some 1,850 men, women and children - by the Nazis to Auschwitz. Only 163 survived.

As Koen explained in an interview with Kathimerini, she's apprehensive about the encounter, which has been requested by the German president himself. 

"It feels strange. And I'm troubled. I want to ask him where did all that hate come from to burn millions of people because they happened to have a different religion.

"I wonder should I accept an apology. What they did to us cannot be forgiven. I was left with no relatives to be with me when I die. They left nobody. They burned them all," she told journalist Stavros Tzimas.

After meeting with Koen and members of Ioannina's Jewish community, Gauck and his Greek counterpart, Karolos Papoulias, will visit the village of Ligkiades outside Ioannina, the site of a massacre of 92 civilians by German troops on 3 October 1943, where the German president will lay a wreath.

Koen's anger is not just reserved for the Nazis, as she recalls the reaction of her Christian neighbours to the deportations in 1944.

"When they threw us out of our homes and dragged us onto the streets to take us to Germany, not one neighbour opened the curtains to see what was going on," she recounts.

The deportation took place at dawn. It was a well-planned operation by the Germans, who were assisted in the task by police loyal to the collaborationist regime in Athens. Before the town's Jews were loaded into trucks, a few individuals managed to flee to the mountains to join the resistance, including the man Esthir would later marry.

Old women and children were among those deported by German troops from Ioannina on 25 March 1944 (Photo: (Photo: German Federal Archive 101I-179-1575-20, Wikimedia Commons) Old women and children were among those deported by German troops from Ioannina on 25 March 1944 (Photo: (Photo: German Federal Archive 101I-179-1575-20, Wikimedia Commons) But Esthir, who was then 17, her parents, and her six siblings ended up in Auschwitz. She and a sister were the only ones to survive.

"The last time I saw my parents was on the railway platform at Auschwitz, where we were separated. I remember [one of them] shouting to me and my sister: 'Girls, remember to guard your honour.' One day, as a prisoner was shaving our hair, she asked what happened my parents, I said I didn't know. Then she pointed towards the flames coming out from the crematoria: there they were burned ..."

Esthir says she was saved by pure luck, when a German doctor with Jewish roots and some nurses hid them in an infirmary when the SS came to take everyone who was there to their deaths.

After the liberation of the camp, she returned to Ioannina only to find a complete stranger living in her family home.

"I rang the bell and a stranger opened the door. 'What do you want?,' he asked? 'This is my home,' I said. "Do you remember if you had an oven here?" he said. "Yes, of course, we used to bake nice bread and pies with it,' I continued. 'Well, clear off. You may have survived the ovens in Germany, but I'll cook you here in your own home,' he told me, as I listened in horror."

Esther tried to make a life for herself. She married Samouil, who came down from the mountains. She started to look around for things that belonged to them so that she could survive.

"I learned that the local bishop had taken our two Singer sewing machines. So I went and asked for them back but I was told they had been given to the prefecture. When I went there, they asked me for the serial numbers of the machines. They were just excuses to get rid of me.

"I lifted my arm and showed them the tattooed number from Auschwitz. 'This is a number that I can remember,' I said and I left ..."

She says the environment in the city wasn't particularly friendly after the war. "One day in the late 1960s, a high-school religion teacher called my daughter an 'old Jew' … It affected her a lot and by the end of the year she went to Israel. She hasn't returned."

Asked why she has remained silent for so long, she breaks down: "Why, we were afraid. No one loved us, do you understand?"

Ioannina's Jews are loaded onto trucks, 25 March 1944 (Photo: German Federal Archive 101I-179-1575-19, Wikimedia Commons) Ioannina's Jews are loaded onto trucks, 25 March 1944 (Photo: German Federal Archive 101I-179-1575-19, Wikimedia Commons)

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