Two young adults living halfway across the world from each other grew up through, or fought in, one of the worst wars in human history. Almost a century later, they’d meet.
Henny M. Simon, from Hannover, Germany, and Ben Cooper, from Avon, Connecticut, were kids brought up to play with people no matter their beliefs or ethnicity during a period of history that would give new meaning to prejudice and discrimination. Simon and Cooper would both eventually have their own stories to tell about the atrocities they both witnessed during World War II.
Simon and Cooper talked to members of the University of Connecticut community about these stories in the Gentry Building Wednesday night, with many Neag School of Education students in attendance.
Five years ago, both now in their 90s, they were introduced to each other by mutual friends and despite the loneliness that came from his late wife passing away in 2009, Cooper spoke on Simon as, “my guardian angel and I’m her guardian angel. It’s just wonderful, life can be good.”
Speaking on prejudice, Brennan McCormack, second-semester master’s student in the Neag School of Education said, “I’d like to think we’re not as bad as some other parts of the country, but it exists everywhere. It’d be ignorant not to say that it exists in some pockets here, so you can never take it for granted that everybody is on the same page.”
Cooper, although optimistic, doesn’t see all the hate reminiscent of the World War II-era defeated.
“We’re all born to the same race but it’s forgotten today,” Cooper said. “It’s a big problem, but something’s got to be done about it.”
At least one student in attendance agreed.
“It’s really important now. There’s been a lot of obvious speculation of comparisons between leaders of this country and Hitler’s rhetoric of making Germany great again and then Trump’s rhetoric of making America great again. …We are all human beings and you shouldn’t persecuted for your race, your religion, your sexual orientation – anything,” said Cassandra Dahms, a fifth-year student at Neag studying to be a secondary social studies education teacher.
Simon grew up in a big Jewish community in Hannover and attended a Jewish school that was sheltered from the rest of the world. Jews at the time around 1931 were fully integrated in Germany, and Simon reaped the benefits of inclusiveness playing with Jewish and non-Jewish friends alike.
When Hitler came into power, “I became an outsider,” said Simon. Some of her old friends called her a “dirty Jew girl” and the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws in 1935 further stigmatized the Jewish people not allowing Jews to teach and even making attending school harder for Simon.
Simon was close with her mother and father and they gave her strength during these impossible times. In 1937, despite bleak signs of rising anti-Semitic tension, her father, who had fought for Germany during World War I, promised her an accordion if she won a national sports tournament – which she did indeed win.
Despite these happier moments, after visiting family in another city, arriving back home three weeks later in 1938, Simon heard word that Nazis had put her father in jail. In order to free Simon’s father, her mother had to get him a visa. Ultimately, her father obtained the visa and went to Shanghai, China as a refugee alone with just over $8 in his pocket.
Around the time her father left, the fever of anti-Semitism had started to rise. Simon started to see Jewish stores vandalized around the time she was not allowed into her school and then she saw a heavy black smoke in the distance. “When I came back home, my mother already knew what was burning,” she said.
It was the synagogues. It was Nov. 9, 1938. The day all synagogues were burned in Germany, it was also “the first time I was really afraid,” Simon said.
From that day on, when walking the streets, “anybody could have spit at us or beat us up. Nobody, not even the police, would have helped us.” Every Jew then had to start wearing the Star of David and had to add “Israel” to their name if they were male or “Sarah” to their name if they were female.
“We were exposed to anything you could imagine,” Simon said.
She and her mother received a letter from the Nazis stating they had 48 hours to leave their home and live in a designated area for Jews. At this point she was still able to work saying, “at least I got out of that terrible place for a couple hours.”
As if things couldn’t get worse, the passports they had to meet with Simon’s father in Shanghai were recalled and shortly after, she and her mother were sent away with 1,001 people, including 105 children, and her Star of David necklace was ripped from her neck. She and her mother’s numbers were 831 and 832 among the Jews being taken to the ghetto. They packed as much of their clothing into their suitcases as possible.
Every stop they made – from the gym floor they had to sleep on for three nights to the train leading them to the ghetto – they were told to leave a possession or suitcase behind to pick up later. Those were lies.
After being amongst “pushing and screaming,” they ended up in a room in a small, vandalized room with other strangers. Rotten food was on the table in these homes that had been occupied by Jews who had almost all been killed just days before. After a week, they got food rations. Those who didn’t work got 100 grams of bread (about a slice) a day. Those who did got 200 grams.
“We always got hungry,” Simon said.
She recounted the days in the ghetto containing moments like when one girl was found with a piece of soap and she and five friends were taken to the cemetery and killed. This is something they witnessed daily, said Simon, adding, “We simply tried to survive a day at a time.”
Into the concentration camp
From one destination to another, the surroundings only got grimmer. The Jews in the ghetto were eventually rounded up and transported to a concentration camp. As Nazi officers shouted derogatory names at Simon and her fellow Jews, she suffered from second-degree frostbite on her big toe from the harsh winter.
“I felt very weak and prayed to be able to stand up,” Simon said.
When asked by a guard, she lied about her abilities and expertise based on advice from a friend and it “saved my life,” she said.
At the concentration camp, which Simon traveled to with her mother, children were quickly sent to their death along with the physically impaired and elderly. Their living spaces were so crowded “one could not even sit up or turn around. It was awful,” said Simon. Their heads were shaved and they wore the same blue and white prisoner clothing.
“We couldn’t even recognize each other,” Simon said.
When at the camp, Simon’s mother was pushed and fell and she couldn’t get up. Prisoners took her upstairs and the camp doctor, a fellow prisoner said there was nothing he could do.
“I had to carry her to the bathroom. It was heartbreaking to see her suffer like that,” Simon said.
Simon’s mother was supposedly to go to a camp with a hospital and the prisoners who rode in the van with her sent Simon notes telling her how her mother was.
“These prisoners put their life on their line, because they were forbidden to write,” said Simon adding, “I never had seen my poor mother again, ” as all those in the hospital were killed.
“On this day, we all were orphans,” Simon said.
Around the same time, the feeling of helplessness surrounded her. In one of the buildings, she suddenly heard a voice – it was her friend Alice who was hiding from the Nazi soldiers.
“Henny help me,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, but told her to hide there.”
But there was no way to help her.
“We never saw her again. This is bothering me to this day – I was asked for help and couldn’t do anything,” Simon said.
On Jan. 29, 1945 – the first moment in years in which hope was restored to Simon and the prisoners – the Germans were seen fleeing from their camp in Poland. One person yelled, “We are free!” according to Simon.
“Jan. 29, 1945 is a day I will never forget as long as I live. Jan. 29 was also my girlfriend Puddy’s birthday. Liberation, what a birthday wish,” Simon said. But the celebration was short lived as the horrifying reality set in. Only 69 people from the original transport of 1,001 Jews from the original transport into the ghetto survived.
Simon “always hoped to survive to see what life was like in a normal world.” She said that despite the atrocities, Hitler “couldn’t take away our knowledge and thoughts.”
Ben Cooper, native of Connecticut, was brought into the fray in Germany through the draft, but unlike many other Americans at that time, he wanted to serve from the outset of the war. He became an eyewitness to the atrocities, serving as a medic, and for 45 years after November 1945 “I was traumatized,” he said.
The love of his life, Dorothy Zaitlin, who “almost knocked me off my feet” when he first saw her merely ironing, helped keep his spirit high through the war, which he entered in 1944. He served in the 45th Infantry Division, a mostly Native American group.
When in France, he met a man who had three children with him around a partly destroyed synagogue. He talked with the man who ultimately gave Cooper his yellow Star of David, which he brought to the presentation at the University of Connecticut.
“I treasure it,” Cooper said.
Despite beautiful moments like that or when he met the tallest man in the world when traveling with the army, when his infantry liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp, despite their success, many of the troops were horrified and disgusted by the stench of burnt flesh and sights of famished people piled together.
“We had no idea what we were going to see,” Cooper said. “It was a sickening thing that was going on. I couldn’t tell men from women. … I can’t believe the inhumanity. It just boggles your mind.”
Cooper couldn’t talk about what he had witnessed for 45 years after he returned to the states, and neither could Simon after moving to the United States. To this day she can barely talk about the conditions she had to endure at her concentration camp.
But Cooper and Simon had people along the way who inspired them to speak out. In 1990, Cooper was called a hero by a teacher who influenced him to speak about his experiences, and Simon’s late husband motivated her to tell her story.
Cooper said “it takes a lot out of us,” but he believes “word has to get out. ... We don’t have to elaborate. We just tell it what it was. It makes me feel better.”
“My hope is by hearing my story and stories of other survivors, everybody can learn to never give up and learn perseverance in their own life,” Simon said.
Through seeing such atrocities, Cooper has come to a clear conclusion as to how the human race needs to move forward.
“Life is so short. We’re going off killing people for what? Life can be beautiful and it is beautiful, but you have these things that happen that throw life upside down. I think a lot of people are depressed, they’re not feeling right. … We’ve got to do something to get things back to normal,” Cooper said.
He left the audience with one motto he believes in even after all he had witnessed: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”
Looking at the modern issue of widespread prejudice against Muslims, Simon said, “That’s how it happened in Germany. You really have to be on guard. We could all live in peace, but there are always warmongers.”
Cooper has come to the conclusion that “everybody should care about any person whoever it is. What difference does it mean what religion or what color you are? We’re the same human people – there’s only one race, there’s the human race.”