Julie Kohner’s mother not only survived four concentration camps during the Holocaust, but in 1953, she was the first person to talk about her experience on national television.
Kohner, a Holocaust educator and Jewish history scholar from Los Angeles, came to Kansas State University on Thursday to talk about her mother’s survival, but also the love story of her parents —another miraculous tale after Adolf Hitler’s destruction of six million lives.
“Some parents tried to protect their children from what happened to them. My parents were different,” Kohner said.
After Kohner’s mother died in 1990, she said it became her mission to share her mother’s story. Kohner founded a non-profit organization, presentation and education curriculum called “Voices of the Generations” to preserve the memory of the Holocaust as the present day carries only the last of its survivors.
Kohner also used the memoir her parents had written together, “Hanna and Walter, a Love Story,” to teach the next generations about the genocide.
“My mother wanted to share her experiences by writing her memoir so future generations would not forget. She said, ‘This is why I had to write my side of the story. If we don’t put it down and tell it to our children, the day may come when people will believe that this really did not happen,’” Kohner said.
Kohner’s mother, Hanna Bloch Kohner, told her story in 1953 on the national television show “This is Your Life,” hosted and produced by Ralph Edwards.
On the show, various surprise guests - mostly celebrities and public figures - were brought on stage where they told their stories and were united with people they had known in their pasts.
“The show was produced eight years after the war. People were not talking about the Holocaust in their homes let alone on national television,” Kohner said about her mother’s appearance.
She said it was her father, a theatrical agent in Los Angeles, who suggested the idea to Edwards, his client, to put his wife on the show to tell her story.
On Thursday, Kohner showed her K-State audience the taping of her mother’s story on “This is Your Life.”
Filmed in black and white, Hanna Kohner sat in the audience of “This is Your Life” next to TV actor Jeffrey Hunter, who along with Edwards took her by surprise when they announced she, a non-celebrity, would be the show’s featured guest.
“May I say, Mrs. Kohner, that looking at you, it’s hard to believe that during seven short years of a still short life, you lived a lifetime of fear, terror and tragedy,” Edwards said. “You look like a young, American girl just out of college, not at all like a survivor of Hitler’s cruel purge of German Jews,” he said.
Edwards went on to narrate Hanna Kohner’s story with pictures and video clips of the war.
The tale of survival started in Czechoslovakia where she and Julie Kohner’s father, Walter, were childhood sweethearts.
They were engaged when Hitler went through their hometown in Czechoslovakia in 1938. Walter had brothers in the U.S. and received his visa to go, promising to send for his wife, but there was a three-year wait to get her to the states.
Hanna, a young adult, went to Amsterdam where she worked as a maid. She lost contact with her fiance when the Nazis occupied the area.
She had written Walter to tell him that it was impossible to get out of Europe. The Nazis burned her papers that would get her to the United States.
Hanna met and married a German Jewish refugee, Carl Benjamin, during the occupation, but two were arrested in the winter of 1943 and sent to concentration camps.
Her husband and parents all died in Auschwitz.
Hanna was also sent to Auschwitz, where she was sent to the showers, missing the gas chambers. Her brother survived the camp.
Finally, on May 7, 1945, American troops came to the Mauthausen camp in Austria and set the Jewish prisoners free.
While Hanna was sent to recover from the war she endured, a soldier who helped free her sent word to Los Angeles for Walter to let him know she was alive.
The letter was forwarded to Luxembourg where Walter was stationed with the U.S. Army.
After seven years of no contact, Walter showed up at the door of the friend’s house in Amsterdam where Hanna was staying and proposed to her the next day.
They were married on Oct. 24, 1945. In July 1946, they went to Los Angeles. Walter Kohner died in 1996.
Kohner said her parents’ “happy ending” came because of lucky circumstances.
Hanna Kohner wrote in her book,“I will probably live the rest of my life with the question, ‘Why me?’ and carry the burden of the price for having been spared.”
Her daughter said that’s why her mother lived the best life she could, “for all the people, for her parents who died, for her husband who died, for everybody else.”