Frank Cohn is not famous. He is not a well-known politician, entertainer, or religious leader. In many ways, he is just an ordinary person who led a normal life. Chances are you have never heard of him. However, I believe his story should be told. Why? Frank Cohn is a Holocaust survivor. No, he did not endure years of captivity in a concentration camp. He did not endure a harrowing escape. Unlike most Holocaust survivors his story had a happy ending. Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, unlike millions of others who were not as fortunate, he escaped Nazi Germany before the emigration door was slammed shut, came to the US, managed to stay, and led a productive life. In a sense, he has lived a life as proxy for the millions who did not escape.
Before I discuss Frank’s story permit me to provide a brief overview of Jewish life in Germany before Hitler and the Nazis seized power in 1932-1933. In my opinion, this is important to provide perspective.
Jews had been living in Germany since the Middle Ages, well before Germany even existed as a distinct nation. In 1871 the various regions and principalities were united into the country we know as Germany. At that time, Jews were given the same rights and privileges as non-Jews. This was referred to as the Jewish Emancipation. By 1933 the Jewish population in Germany numbered some 525,000 persons, 400,000 of which were German citizens. Some were poor, but most were middle class, for example, small business owners and professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and scientists. In 1922 a German Jew, Albert Einstein, had won the prestigious Nobel Prize for Physics. All in all, German Jews were as safe, secure and prosperous as Jews living anywhere else. One could argue that the pre-WWII status of German Jews was not all that different from that of present-day American Jews, but that is a topic for another blog on another day.
As most of us know, Jewish existence changed rapidly and irrevocably in 1933 when Hitler and the Nazis consolidated the power they had gained in the 1932 election. They had won control by successfully blaming the Jews for all the country’s problems. This was not unique. Throughout history, many other political and religious leaders had done the same thing. In fact, some historians have postulated that some rulers permitted Jews to remain in their country just so they could be used as scapegoats for crop failures, natural disasters, or other misfortunes.
Most German Jews, cognizant of their longstanding peaceful coexistence with German non-Jews, ignored the warning signs thinking it would all blow over. They refused to believe what they were seeing with their own eyes until it was too late. A few, like the Cohn family, were prescient enough to “get while the getting was good.”
Frank Cohn was born in the German city of Breslau, (present day: Wroclaw, Poland) on August 2, 1925. His father, Martin, owned a successful sporting goods store. His mother, Ruth, was a homemaker. Frank was an only child. Unlike many other families, which were enduring economic hardships during the post-WWI period under the Weimar Republic, the family enjoyed a comfortable, middle class existence.
In early 1933 the Nazis ramped up their campaign against the Jews. One of the most effective measures was the economic boycott that commenced on April 1 and targeted Jewish-owned businesses. Soon after, the Cohns were forced to sell the family store. Martin found a position selling bales of cloth to clothing stores and tailor shops.
Other incidents of persecution occurred later that year to Frank and other Jews. (1) His favorite third grade teacher began wearing the Nazi uniform with a swastika armband. (2) His non-Jewish peers joined the Hitler Youth and displayed the Nazi emblem on their clothing. (3) In school when his classmates sang Hitler Youth songs, Frank was instructed to remain seated, as Jews were forbidden to sing those songs. (4) Often, Frank was chased by Hitler Youth boys after school who taunted him and attempted to beat him up. He avoided being caught, but he was traumatized. (5) His parents were forced to place him in a private Jewish school. Shortly thereafter, the government passed laws which forbad Jews from attending German public schools. In retrospect, the foregoing and other laws and restrictions seem like obvious warnings, but as I said, at the time most Jews did not think they would last.
Not so the Cohns. First, Martin managed to emigrate to the US. Soon after, Ruth and Frank followed. Ruth bought two first class tickets on the Staatendam Steamer of the Holland-America Line, departing from Amsterdam for New York. Ruth feared that if immigration authorities knew that her husband was already in the US, they would order their immediate return to Europe upon arrival. However, fortuitously, first class passengers were invited to disembark directly onto the pier, avoiding the authorities on Ellis Island.
The Cohns reunited in New York on October 30th, 1938. On November 9th, a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms referred to as Kristallnacht took place throughout Germany and Austria. In response, President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order permitting all in-country German refugees to stay and, again fortuitously, the Cohns’ visitor visas were extended indefinitely.
Just a month after his 18th birthday in 1943, Frank was drafted into the US Army. During Basic Training he was sworn in as a US citizen. Frank was initially assigned to the 87th Infantry Division but while in Belgium, the Army discovered that he spoke German fluently. He was sent to Le Vesinet, France for a two-week Intelligence course. Frank served during the Battle of the Bulge and later in the Rhineland and Central Europe campaigns, in a 12th Army Group Intelligence unit named T-Force. In the subsequent occupation by Allied Forces, Frank was tasked with guarding war criminals, overseeing German Prisoners of War, and shipping Nazi documents back to the US, in support of future war crime prosecutions.
During his tour Frank had the unique experience of being “captured” by American troops. Briefly, here’s what happened: Frank and his Intelligence unit were on patrol and got lost. They spied another US outfit and approached them to ascertain where they were. The lieutenant in charge of this other outfit doubted that they were American soldiers as, being in an Intelligence unit, they were not carrying ID. He asked them certain questions, such as who had won the World Series the previous year. This was a standard means of identification in the field. Neither Frank nor his CO knew. Meanwhile, another member of the unit approached and asked what was going on. It happened he spoke with a heavy German accent. Out came the M1s. Back at headquarters it took several hours to straighten out the situation. In retrospect, it was humorous, but not so at the time. A trigger-happy GI could easily have shot them.
After the war, Frank completed his undergraduate degree in Psychology and Education at the City College of New York and later obtained a Masters degree in Police Administration from Michigan State University. Frank continued to serve in the military for a total of 35 years before retiring from his role as Chief of Staff of the Military District of Washington. He married Pauline in 1948 and they had one daughter, Laura.
Yes, Frank was lucky, lucky his parents recognized the dangers of the Nazis early on, lucky his mom managed to get them into the US, lucky they got to stay when so many others were deported, and lucky he wasn’t shot by American troops. His story is one of the “success” stories of the Holocaust. He made the most of his opportunity. He lived a productive life. He served in WWII; he continued to serve his country by remaining in the army for 35 years; and he served as a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum where no doubt he had a unique firsthand story to tell visitors. It was his way of “giving back.” In the words of the Tom Hanks character in the movie Saving Private Ryan he “earned it.”