Between the ages of 9 and 16, Edith Mayer Cord lived life as a refugee, fleeing the uncertainty and terror of Nazi Germany and the Axis powers — all the while feeling she should have been living the normal life of a student.
Born Edith Mayer in Vienna in 1928, her family moved from Austria to Italy in 1937. In 1939, fearing the rise of fascism under Benito Mussolini, the Mayers entered France illegally and moved to Nice to seek political asylum. France then fell to Germany in 1940. Cord said police told her brother and father one day to pack up their belongings and say goodbye. That was the last she saw of them. Five years later, she would learn they had died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
In 1941, Cord and her mother were ousted from Nice. They traveled between a series of small French villages.
“I was scared — I was scared out of my wits,” Cord told a group of about 170 seventh-graders in the gym of Catonsville Middle School on Monday morning. “And I was tense because I always had to be on my guard.”
Cord was invited to the school by social studies teacher Aaron Jaffey, who said there was no better opportunity for the students to learn about the Holocaust than from a survivor.
“A lot of kids don’t know the extent of what the Holocaust was,” Jaffey said. “There’s no better reinforcement than having someone who lived it,” he said.
In May 1944, Cord was smuggled with a group of other teenagers into Switzerland, where she moved between refugee camps and villages before being assigned a job as a nanny during which she taught herself English and how to use a typewriter.
The next year, after World War II had ended in Europe, Cord moved back to France with her mother. It was there she learned her brother and father had been executed at Auschwitz in 1942.
Decades later, the 90-year-old Columbia resident told students she’s let go of resentment toward the German people and Germany.
“It’s no longer my problem,” Cord said. “That was a very liberating experience, I’m now free to get on with my own life.
“I don’t even hate the Nazis. I think of them as misguided souls.”
Cord said she thinks speaking to students is important work.
“I think our children live in ‘la-la land.’ They don’t have a clue,” Cord said. “They live in such incredible comfort, with such incredible abundance … I try to wake them up a little bit.”
Number of survivors shrinking
Jaffey said it is an “unfortunate” truth that, in a few more years, there may not be any more Holocaust survivors around to share their stories.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C., Holocaust survivors are typically recognized as anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, who was persecuted, displaced or discriminated against by the Nazis or their allies.
Edna Friedberg, a historian with the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the museum, called said Cord’s case “an extremely typical story, for [those victimized by the Nazis] to go from place to place to place.”
Noel Keppler, a global communications specialist for The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, said there are an estimated 400,000 Holocaust survivors living worldwide, with the largest contingent living in Israel.
And Rebecca Boehling, director of UMBC’s Judaic studies program, said, statistically, compared to the number of people who were killed during the Holocaust, Cord’s story was “very fortunate.”
“It sounds like her family had fortunately had a fair amount of foresight and moved as much as they could,” Boehling said.
Focused on education
Back in France after the war, Cord attended night classes to earn the equivalent of bachelor’s and a master’s degrees, called the Licence ès Lettres, from the University of Toulouse, in 1952.
That year, she moved to New York, seeking a doctorate she would never attain — in part because she had no money or property, and had to work.
She married Steven Cord in 1954, raised three children, and taught French and German at Indiana University of Pennsylvania from 1962 to 1979. In 1979, she began working in financial services and in 1984, at 56, she earned her designation as a certified financial planner. She moved to Columbia in 1985 and retired in 2006.
Cord fielded more than a dozen questions from the audience.
Fiona Marks, a seventh-grader, asked Cord if she ever encountered any Nazis or Germans who helped her during the war.
Cord said no. But when she was just 14, working as a maid in a hotel, she said, she met a 16-year-old soldier from Hungary who said he “couldn’t wait to fight for the Fuhrer.”
She said the experience didn’t exactly scare her, but called it one of her closest brushes with a Nazi soldier. She said she mostly remembers thinking: “We both should be in school!”
Fiona said she was excited to meet Cord, calling the experience “really cool.”
“You don’t get this chance like, almost ever,” Fiona said.
Another student asked Cord if she saw the same things happening in 2016 and 2017 that happened as the Nazis came to power in pre-war Germany.
“Yes, of course there are [political] mistakes today. Lots of mistakes,” Cord said. “My biggest concern is that we in America don’t appreciate the freedom we have and don’t understand what it takes to preserve it.”
She said she tries talk to students without shocking them so they realize how important being educated is when it comes to making decisions in life — both in how to act, and in who to vote for.
“Part of governing one’s self, part of democracy, is you have to make wise decisions. That takes a lot of knowledge and understanding,” she said.