Josef Cohen’s (Conen) testimony given to Yad Vashem is the only written testimony by one of the mere handful of survivors who were on Crete at the time of the arrest of the community. He was born in Hania on 22 December 1920 and worked as a carpenter and a mechanic at a printer’s office. After his escape he was hidden by locals, first in Hania and later in mountain villages, and provided with papers that identified him as Christian. Manolis Petrakis, Josef’s former boss and guardian after his escape, took care of him and tried to find a way for Josef to join the partisans. Josef Cohen also learned from Petrakis that his cousin, Yaacov Ischakis, had also fled, and they met once after their escape. Josef Cohen eventually joined the partisans and worked for them printing flyers and posters. After the war he stayed in Hania for some time answering among other things letters from American Jews inquiring through the Red Cross about the destiny of the Jews of Crete. When the Civil War broke out in 1946, Josef Cohen was drafted into the army, where he served for three years. In 1950 he went to Israel and started a new life working as a carpenter. He was the only survivor of his immediate family. In his testimony, he describes how he escaped the arrest on the morning of 21 May 1944:
[From] Athens and Salonika the Jews were taken but at that time we did not know anything about this. Two families left and went to Athens and they were never heard of again.
One day, on Shabbat morning approximately 5-6 Germans knocked on all the Jewish houses. They had received the lists of the Jews from the municipality. Most of the Jews were living in one neighborhood and only about 5-6 were living elsewhere. […]
When they knocked at our house, my second sister came down the stairs, I also got dressed. From the staircase I saw a German who gave me a paper written in Greek saying that we had 45 minutes to get ourselves ready, to take clothes and food for 8 days – if we had money, gold and other valuables we should take them with us. In our house everyone was already in a panic. The German took the paper and shouted in German "Raus Mensch verflucht!" (Get out, damn it!). I returned upstairs to the balcony, with the intention of running away. I jumped from the balcony to another and reached the house of a Christian family that I knew. In this family house was a hall with a door with pegs where they hang clothes. They hid me inside, closed the door, hung clothes on the pegs and the door was hidden from the outside. The wall of the room I was in was adjoining the wall of the kitchen in my house and I could hear everything that was going on. They took my family out according to name and when they got to my name my mother understood that I had run away and said to them that I had journeyed to some other village some time before. […]
After the Jews left, the Germans came and took all the furniture from their houses, threw sewing machines etc. out of the windows and all the Jewish belongings they put in the cinema from the times of the Turks, and began to distribute them amongst the ones that helped the Germans. […]
Photos 1, 2: © Yad Vashem