As Edith Mayer Cord recounts her story of hiding in plain sight as a teenager in Europe during the Third Reich, her fear of nearly being discovered as a Jew in a convent is as palpable as her desperation at trying to overcome poverty.
Cord, who was born in Vienna and now lives in Columbia, documented her story in Becoming Edith: The Education of a Hidden Child. She spoke to members of Columbia Jewish Congregation on April 20 about going underground to avoid persecution by the Nazis. She said the trauma from those times still comes back to her.
“One of the Nazis’ militias was the Brownshirts. They were a bunch of a thugs. They would beat you up if they didn’t like you [and] disrupt meetings,” said Cord, 87, referring to a paramilitary unit of the Nazi Party.
“So when I see people on our [college] campuses who prevent speakers from speaking because they don’t agree with them, it brings back [those memories] of when the Nazis — when the Brownshirts — prevented speakers from speaking.”
Cord, who taught French and German at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, grew up in a traditional Jewish home, where her father put on tefillin every day and her mother went to the mikvah. She called the year she attended a Jewish day school as the “happiest year of my childhood.”
In 1938, the Germans annexed Austria and Cord’s parents moved the family to Italy, fearful of what would happen if they remained. When Italy became unsafe, the family became refugees.
“My father went from one consulate to another,” and one after another, each country refused them refuge.
“And because of that, that’s what gave Hitler a free hand to kill us,” said Cord.
Unable to obtain visa for any other country, the family entered France illegally in 1939, where they received political asylum.
Despite that, her father and brother were deported and sent to several concentration camps, including Auschwitz, where they died. While living in France with her mother, as deportations were taking place in the country, she made the decision in July 1943 to become a hidden child. She was 14 years old.
“It wasn’t a simple thing to hide in plain sight,” Cord said. “I was lying all the time. I had to be on my guard all the time.” For Cord, and many other children like her, being a hidden child meant changing her name, moving from home to home on a monthly basis and constantly concealing any remnants that would reveal that she was Jewish.
“It’s a terrible crisis for [hidden children] and a problem that they couldn’t communicate with their parents,” said Patricia Heberer-Rice, acting senior historian for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“They couldn’t communicate with rescuers or teachers about it because it would endanger themselves. They had to bottle up their emotion, which is very hard for a young child.”
Heberer-Rice said the number of hidden children is unknown, largely due to the nature of being hidden.
Cord said that being deprived of an education was especially difficult.
“When you’re moving from place to place, you lose all [your] skill sets,” said Heberer-Rice, who said that could include a child’s native language. “You have children missing entire [skills such as] writing, mathematics and reading.”
Cord was eventually smuggled from France into neutral Switzerland, along with 30 other Jewish children, with the help of a clandestine arm of Jewish scouts, the Sixième. In Switzerland, she reunited with her mother.
After the war, she returned to France where she “had absolutely nothing. I had no skills, no education. I had nothing, and I am confronted with this abomination [of the aftermath of the war]. Now what do I do? Do I commit suicide because life isn’t worth living?”
She decided that her only hope was gaining an education. In 1949, and after intense struggle to catch up, she earned the French equivalent of a high school diploma. But this was hardly the end of her problems.
She recalled that when she went to the president of the Jewish community in Toulouse and asked for help finding a job, he told her that a local rabbi’s wife had just given birth and needed help with housework.
Cord, who had worked as a nanny in Switzerland, quickly went to the rabbi’s home.
But the rabbi’s wife refused to give her work.
“I can’t tell you to scrub the floor,” the rabbi’s wife told Cord.
Cord instead became a sales girl for a local merchant. She described the job as the lowest position one could have in France at the time.
In 1952, Cord made it to the United States, and by working a minimum-wage job, she quickly became self-sufficient, an accomplishment she recalls with pride.
Through her speaking engagements, Cord said her goal is “to share the hard lessons of her life.”