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Holocaust survivor shares WWII story with students at Canterbury

By Staff | Feb 12, 2009

Eighth-grade students at Canterbury School caught a glimpse of life during the Holocaust after Marie Cori, a survivor living in France during World War II, described her stirring life story of escaping the Nazis as a young girl.
The students clapped for Cori as she sat down and began telling her story with the use of a microphone and small karaoke speaker. Students were enraptured in the descriptions of her life, covering their mouths in shock and creasing their brows in disbelief as she spoke.
When the war began Cori was 6 years old and lived in France with a large family. Although they lived poor, without running water or toilets, she said they were happy.
“We were happy, had lots of children,” she said. “We never knew poor because everyone was poor.”
As the war unfolded and more Jewish families in Cori’s neighborhood were being round up each day by the Nazis, she said her parents decided to separate the siblings. Her parents ended up in a concentration camp, but Cori stayed within what she called a “castle” in the middle of a forest in France.
She does not recall how long she stayed at the castle, citing her young age as the reason for not being able to discern if she was there one year or six.
Children at the castle were considered “the hidden,” along with thousands of others who did not fall into Nazi hands. She was looked after by a group of Catholic nuns.
“The Mother Superior was the only one who knew we were Jewish,” said Cori. “She bathed my brother alone once a week because the other children were uncircumsized.”
The country was so overrun with soldiers and one’s safety was so pervasive that even when she had to take her tonsils out, a pair of pliers had to be used in a dark attic. Cori hid in the attic for some time and was watched over by a janitor, who brought her food and a cat to keep her company.
Even today Cori said she cannot recall what the man looked like or what happened to him, even though she believes the janitor helped save other people’s lives.
Cori has aged since her experiences in the war, wearing glasses with thin lenses, her blonde hair short and exhibiting some self-consciousness in how she appears in photographs, yet her good humor continued to inject laughter into a group spending an hour traveling back in time to one of history’s most horrendous events.
Her message to students on Thursday was that one person can make a difference regardless of the circumstances.
“One person can make a different, that Mother Superior saved my life,” said Cori.
When the war ended the International Red Cross reconnected Cori with her parents who had survived the camps, even though she was angry at her parents because she felt abandoned.
“It wasn’t easy, it was like living with strangers,” she said. “I was angry with my parents, I felt abandoned and didn’t understand until much later.”
Today, Cori lives in St. Louis and has traveled the world, including a trip back to the castle as an adult. During her visit the caretakers said many of “the hidden” had revisited the site over the years.
“Hidden children are like my family, but they are all dying now,” said Cori.
Recently, she delivered testimony to staff members working at the United States Holocaust Museum to ensure that her story lives on.
She was in Southwest Florida this week visiting her grandson when she was approached by Michael Kneeland, an eighth-grade English teacher at Canterbury.
Six of the students at Canterbury said they had relatives who also survived the Holocaust.
Suzie Shin, a Canterbury student and Cape Coral resident, said she was surprised at Cori’s story.
“I was sad that someone that age had to go through something so brutal,” said Suzie.
Kathy Edwards, spokesperson for the school, said students had a tremendous opportunity with Cori’s visit.
“Our school is so lucky we can have people like you to educate us,” said Edwards.