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Holocaust survivor is concerned that genocide still occurs around world

Cora der Koorkanian

Cora der Koorkanian, a Holocaust survivor who grew up in Bucharest, Romania, is aware that genocide is happening all over the world, such as against Muslims in Myanmar.  She is concerned about anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe and here.

Not only did the Holocaust affect her generation of family and friends, but also her great-grandparents fled pogroms persecuting Jews in Russia to settle in Romania.

In addition, her husband’s mother lost her parents, first husband and her two children fleeing during the death march of the Armenian genocide.

With that continuing concern, Cora has been involved in the Yom HaShoah Planning Committee and will light one of the candles for the Holocaust survivors in the 2018 Yom HaShoah Community Observance of the Holocaust at 7 p.m., Sunday, April 15, at Temple Beth Shalom, 1322 E. 30th Ave.

In Spokane since November 2016, she moved from Manchester, N.H., to be near her daughter and two grandchildren.

Cora grew up believing that whatever did not kill her made her stronger. Even in bad times, she thought positively, putting one foot in front of the other.

“I never learned to hate. I forgive, but I don’t forget,” she said. “It’s important not to forget.  I do not divide the world into good people and bad people, because even good people sometimes do bad things.”

When working with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Brazil, a German colleague was a good friend.  Someone wondered how that could be.

“We were both children, starving and hiding from bombs at the same age.  He was in Berlin.  I was in Bucharest,” she said.

Today, Cora has many shoes, because in the war, Jews were not allowed to buy shoes. She cut toes off her shoes and added cardboard as her feet grew.  She also keeps bread in her refrigerator because her family did not have enough bread in the war.

“No matter what our conditions then, we had love at home.  I may not have had food in my tummy or shoes on my feet, but I had love. I pass it on,” she said.

Cora was born in 1934 in Bucharest, a year after Hitler came to power.  Her mother—her father’s second wife— died when she was 37 and Cora was 14 months old.  Her oldest brother was 29 years older. She had six brothers and two sisters. Her father, a Zionist, was born in 1875, owned a restaurant and was president of a local synagogue.

Struggles for Jews began before the war.  Her family had to quickly move out of their two-story house to live in a two-bedroom apartment.  Before the Germans took his restaurant, Cora’s father gave it to the maître d’, who had worked with him for 20 years.

One Friday evening in January 1941, a friend and her mother suddenly came to the house.  The mother told her father that 170 Jews had been taken to a slaughter house—among them her husband—hung by their feet and had their throats cut. After Cora learned about it, she had nightmares. Her friend did not know how her father died until later, when both were in Israel.

Her father, like other Jews, bribed local officials to survive.

Beyond Germans, the local Iron Guard “carried on fierce pogroms against Jews,” she said.  Romania joined the Axis and sent people to concentration camps.  Two of her brothers were sent to labor camps in 1942.

One, a Zionist, owned a brick factory Nazis took over when they took him.  After the war, Communists took it. Nothing was returned to Jews, she said.

Cora’s father kept kosher, but was able to sneak bacon to his son at the camp—through a “good” German whose son was an SS guard there.  He said, “If it saves my son’s life, it’s not a sin.”

Her brothers returned after the war ended in August 1944 in Romania. Her six-foot-tall brother, Moris, weighed 120 pounds.  His skin hung on him. He recovered and lived to be 93.  Her other brother, Bernard, came back and had a heart attack.  He had several more heart attacks and lived to be 65.

Their first evening home, the family sat at the dinner table. Her father suddenly turned off the lights, and, in gratitude for their survival, said, “Look how much light is in here.  All my stars are here.”

When war broke out in Romania in 1941, Cora was seven.  She attended kindergarten and first grade at a private school run by nuns, until she was kicked out because she was Jewish. Not allowed to go to school, Jewish children studied in synagogues.

“The joke was on the Nazis because we had the best teachers.  Many had doctoral degrees,” she said.
After the war, the Jewish school re-opened, and many children had skipped one or two grades.  She graduated when she was 16.

Cora’s father believed girls needed more education than boys, because it was harder for girls to achieve anything without education.

After the Germans left, the Communists took over. In 1940, one sister had left for Palestine when she was 14. In 1950, Cora immigrated to Israel with her father, one brother and his family. 

“When we left, we only took a carry-on bag, no money or jewelry,” she said.  “Two other brothers came later.” 

The Romanian Communists made Israel buy the release of her Zionist brother.  Israel bought 10 others, too.
Two brothers stayed in Romania.  One was an opera singer.  The other’s wife wanted to stay with her family.
In Israel, Cora was in a kibbutz—a collective farm—for two years.  She entered the military and attended nursing school.

In 1961, she came to New York for post graduate studies in nursing at Mt. Sinai.  Wanting to be a biochemist, she audited classes at Columbia and was invited by a research team in 1964 to Salvador, Brazil, to do research on the physiology of human reproduction with WHO.  In 1969, WHO invited her to Washington, D.C., to be a consultant on population dynamics in the Caribbean and Central America.  She met her future husband in D.C.

Fluent in six languages—Romanian, Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, French and English—she worked with WHO out of the United Nations in Rio de Janiero from 1970 to 1976. 

During these years, Cora was long-distance dating George, who was in the foreign service in Washington, D.C.  When he asked her to marry him, she moved there in 1976 and became a citizen.

Since 1956, he had been in the diplomatic courier service with the State Department. From 1976 to 1988 they were stationed together three years in Frankfurt, Germany, five years in Bangkok, Thailand, and four years in Frankfurt.

When he retired, they settled in his home town, Manchester, N.H.  Their daughter, Diana, who was born a year after they married, grew up attending international schools in Thailand and Germany, and schools in Manchester.

In New Hampshire, Cora became an interpreter for courts and lawyers, and for medical, family planning, children’s health and cancer care services. Her husband died of cancer in 2007.

Since moving to Spokane, she is a five-minute walk from her daughter and two grandchildren.
“I had wonderful memories of my grandmother and wanted to pass that on to my grandchildren,” she said.

Last July, Cora and two cousins, who live in France, visited Romania to search for ancestors.
“It was an eye-opener.  Jews are now less than one percent of the Romanian population—7,000 now compared to the pre-war population of 750,000.  We went to four towns, Bucharest, Iasi, Roman and Falticeni.  My great-grandfather came from Russia to Falticeni in 1848.  Once 78 percent of the people there were Jews from Russia.  Now just 12 Jews live there.”

Because of limited openings for Jews at universities, her cousins went to France.  Three, who studied medicine in Lyon, were sent to Auschwitz.  Only one returned.

In her early years in Israel, she and her friends did not talk of their experiences, but eventually, they began telling their stories.

A friend, Eva Moses Kor, one of the Mengele twins, wrote Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins at Auschwitz.  Eva goes back to Auschwitz to speak.

Another friend, Irene Cedar Rogers, whom she visits in Florida, wrote Finding Peace Is My Revenge.
Cora chooses to write and tell good memories about her family to her grandchildren.

“All I have gone through has made me a stronger, tougher and better person.  I am lucky how my life evolved,” she said.

Compared to subsistence living in Romania, she now lives in comfort, so she gave the one-time reparation the German government paid her—as a child Holocaust survivor—for scholarships and programs to help people learn about the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide.

For information, call 747-3304.

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