We are very sad to announce the passing of Bergen-Belsen survivor and much admired friend of the National Holocaust Centre & Museum, Lady Zahava Kohn MBE. She died after a long illness, one week short of her 87th birthday.

Poster made by NHCM Trustee Laura Weller's daughter Rachel aged 10, after interviewing Lady Zahava


Zahava Kanarek was born on 5th August 1935 in Ramat Gan, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv in what was then British-occupied Mandate Palestine and today is Israel.

Jews who already lived there or who moved there from Europe were safe from the Third Reich. However in a cruel twist of fate, Zahava's Europe-born family decided to move back unknowingly into the jaws of danger when, to aid her mother's poor health, they resettled from Ramat Gan to the cooler climate of Amsterdam in 1937. It soon became clear that Holland had become a bad place to be for Jewish people. The Kanareks tried desperately to get back out and eventually obtained visas for Honduras. But the papers arrived too late. 

In May 1943, Zahava and her family were rounded up and sent to Westerbork transit camp in Holland. Her parents decided to leave her  16 month-old brother Yehudi with a Dutch resistance fighter, who would send messages to them in code to say Yehudi was ok and sent a photograph of him hidden in a bag of dried beans.

Zahava's first escape from death came around September 1944. After some four months inside Westerbork, the time had come for the dreaded onward journey to one of the death or slave labour camps. Zahava had caught chicken pox and the guards wanted to put her on the train for ill people, separating her from her parents. But as Zahava said to The Jewish Chronicle in 2011, "I was hysterical and eventually they gave up trying. That probably saved my life and my parents. When we left Westerbork, the only reason we did not go straight to Auschwitz was because I had British protection from being born in [Mandate] Palestine. If we had been separated, they would have been killed. After four months in Westerbork, we were on the platform waiting for the train to Auschwitz and we were called back at the last second and told to stay. We stayed there five more months and then were sent to Bergen-Belsen."

The Kanareks arrived in Bergen-Belsen in January 1944 and were placed in the Sternlager or Star Camp section. This camp housed about 4,000 Jewish prisoners held for possible exchange with German nationals interned by the Allies. Sternlager prisoners were not required to wear striped camp uniforms but instead had the Star of David sewn onto their clothing - hence the camp's name. Life was nevertheless extremely tough. As Zahava further explained: "It was a brutal place, with many beatings. My father had his teeth all knocked out. There were no toilets and I shared a bunk with my mother. She was very ill with typhoid and she had a bucket next to the bed because she couldn't make it outside to go to the toilet. One day she knocked the bucket all over me. She was terrified because it was so infectious and we had nothing to wash with."


In January 1945 the family were among selected exchange prisoners transferred to Biberach internment camp, near the German border with Switzerland. The camp was liberated by French troops on 23 April 1945 and the Kanareks managed to reach Zahava's grandparents who were still living in Switzerland. There they were reunited with Yehudi who, still only three years old, didn't recognise them and called his mother 'Mummy from Switzerland'." Following a prolonged period of intensive physical rehabilitation in Switzerland, Zahava and her family settled back in Amsterdam, hoping to rebuild their shattered lives.

In 1958, Zahava moved to London. She married Dr Ralph Kohn (the late Sir Ralph Kohn), a pharmacologist in March 1963, and she has lived in London ever since. The couple had three daughters and Zahava did not speak of her Holocaust experience.

It was only when her mother Rosy died in 2001 that Zahava discovered a stash of documents and objects in a small suitcase at the back of a cupboard. Rosy had collected and hidden them. From this find, Zahava pieced together her family’s wartime story and recorded them in her 2009 book Fragments of a Lost Childhood. Since its publication, Zahava – accompanied by her daughter Hephzibah – visited schools across the UK and Germany to talk to young people of all backgrounds about ‘Surviving the Holocaust’. They spoke many times in our own Memorial Hall to packed Secondary School audiences.

Zahava received much recognition for her work over the years and in October 2020, she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list for her services to Holocaust education. She was a kind, modest and understated person and a great supporter of the arts & music as well as scientific, educational and humanitarian causes.

Zahava is fondly remembered by us at the National Holocaust Centre and Museum. We will greatly miss her kindness and dignity and extend our condolences to her three daughters Hephzibah, Michelle and Maxine, by whom she was adored. May Zahava's memory be a blessing on all of them and on her five grandchildren.


This medical kit belonged to Zahava's mother Rosy. Doctors in the Biberach DP camp gave it to her. It included items such as medication and bandages, as Zahava and her parents were extremely unwell after their experiences at Bergen-Belsen. These items are on display in our permanent Holocaust Exhibition.