It took a lunchtime run-in with a group of neo-Nazis to provoke Judy Cohen into action.
In 1993 she encountered the group of young demonstrators at the corner of Bay and Bloor streets in front of the former Human Rights Commission building.
“They had white power placards,” she said, “I thought, ‘Am I seeing the past?’ (When they commented on) black slavery I realized that, just like that, (they) rewrote history.”
Unable to shake off her rising emotions, Cohen confronted the group.
“I had a terrible, nervous stomach,” she recalled. “(The Holocaust) all came back instantly.”
Soon after retiring that same year, Cohen marched straight into the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre and asked what she could do to help. From that moment on, Cohen has toured schools and lecture halls across Canada, sharing her story in an effort to reach out to younger generations.
Born in Hungary, Judy Cohen immigrated to Canada in 1948 with her two surviving siblings. She lost four other siblings and both her parents at Auschwitz.
On Wednesday night, Cohen attended a power-point presentation by University of Toronto professor Leonid Livak at Hart House in honour of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
When she speaks, Cohen said she determines beforehand what she’s trying to achieve.
“I have to bring some relevance to young people’s lives. I hope some will at least think about the issues I am raising,” she said.
Media savvy and well versed on the subject, Cohen also started a website in 2001 about women and the Holocaust, including samples written by women during the war.
“It’s so raw, so real,” she said. “There is no historical distance; they didn’t have the chance to reflect on (what they wrote).”
Cohen’s relentlessness in doing her part to bring younger generations’ attention to the Holocaust has earned her a strong reputation both within and outside of the Jewish community.
“Don’t look at me as a survivor,” Cohen said. “I’m a witness.”