By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Assistant to the Editor
Holocaust survivor and Hyde Park resident Herman Cohn spoke last Tuesday at Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th St., in an event hosted by the University of Chicago Chabad Center to mark the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a night of terror widely recognized as the start of the German attempt to eliminate its Jewish population.
The “Night of Broken Glass,” as it’s been called in English, took place Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, when Jewish businesses in Austria and Germany were destroyed and tens of thousands of Jews sent to concentration camps. Cohn — who once operated a men’s clothing store at the Hyde Park Shopping Center — detailed his experiences of Kristallnacht as a teenager.
“When I look at all of you, I’m reminded of my days back in high school, 75-plus years ago,” Cohn began. Bespectacled and in a sweater and black, pleated pants, Cohn read an introduction from two stapled sheets of paper.
“After I found out that my grandmother, at the age of 84, was sent to the Sobibor concentration camp and perished in the gas chamber, I was determined to talk to students like you and many others about these dark days, so she, and various other members of our family, will never be forgotten,” he said.
Cohn proceeded to recount from memory how the day after Kristallnacht he went to the Cologne, Germany, tailor shop he worked at and was to told to leave for his safety. “I don’t want you here. I don’t care where you go, but leave,” Cohn recalled his boss saying. Cohn said he found out later that his father — who was missing — avoided capture the night before by hiding in a pit of leaves for around two hours.
After his father came home, Cohn said, He was urged to leave the country. Cohn went into a social security office to get the papers necessary for an exit visa. He was asked by the clerk, a former classmate, whether a local synagogue had been burnt the night before and answered that it had. Cohn said he was then arrested, and led to Gestapo headquarters by the town’s head policeman who told him to walk five steps ahead of him or else be shot.
“To this day I can hear the heavy black boots on the pavement,” Cohn said. At Gestapo headquarters, he says, SS members took turns beating him. But he was spared and then lucky enough — being just shy of age 18 — to join a rescue mission as part of the Kindertransport program that whisked thousands of Jewish children out of Nazi Germany before World War II erupted.
Cohn ended up in Holland and then traveled to the U.S. with his parents. Here he joined the U.S. army and fought in the war as part of a unit that landed on Omaha Beach and eventually liberated the Dachau concentration camp.
Cohn shared with his audience photos he took of the Dachau camp when it was liberated. The grisly pictures showed the dead bodies of Dachau victims and SS guards as well as the heap of clothes he says was left behind by those who were sent to be gassed.
“What I saw yesterday is really too horrible to write but I’ll make an attempt to recall all the horrors I saw and hope that you can take it,” Cohn read from a letter to his wife detailing the Dachau camp. “First of all, there are many thousands of prisoners. Thousands of Jews, Polish people, Russians, Hungarians, Frenchmen, thousands of German political prisoners, and even women behind barbed wire fences.”
The talk was Cohn’s first at the Chabad Center in more than ten years, according to Rabbi Yossi Brackman, director of the U. of C. Chabad Center.
“I think for the Jewish community, it’s important to remember that our identity [has] often times caused us persecution,” said Rabbi Brackman in an introduction to Cohn’s talk. “But we have survived. Not only have we survived, we have thrived.”