Frank Cohn was born in 1925, in Breslau, Germany, where he experienced antisemitism following the enactment of a variety of anti-Jewish laws by the Nazi government. Frank came to the United States in 1938, just before Kristallnacht. He returned to Germany with the American military as a member of the 12th Army Group Intelligence Unit. Read Frank’s full biography.
My name is Frank Cohn. I'm a Holocaust survivor and Museum volunteer. I was born in 1925, in Breslau, Germany—now named Wrocław in Poland. My father and mother energetically opened a sporting goods store, which was pretty successful. As middle-class German citizens, they hired a maid to take care of the household, and after I arrived, a girl to take care of me.
Our life was full of comfort. But there were dark clouds of a gathering political storm on the horizon as we entered the years of the 1930s.
From my window in my apartment, I was then about six years old, I could see fighting of groups of communists with groups of Nazis in front of the Finance Office, which was located across the street from us. And then, in 1932, the first personal news struck us.
My uncle Max was killed in the street attack, in Chemnitz, by Nazi Storm Troopers, just because he was a Jew. There were no arrests. But the word "Nazi" started to take meaning for me.
It was 1933, when Hitler, the Nazi Chancellor, came to power. It was immediately frightening and became personal.
Nazi Storm Troopers picketed my father's store, telling the public not to buy from Jews.
Within a year, my father sold the store for much less than it was worth. He had considered the need to sell as a catastrophe, but in retrospect it probably was a lifesaver. It was the beginning of his economic decline. Had the store still flourished, we never would have considered leaving Germany when we did.
At age six, I entered public school. I don't remember much of my first-grade teacher. He was "old," probably in his 50s. But in second grade, there was a young teacher, and I immediately loved him. I was thrilled to learn that Mr. Schubert would continue with my class in the third grade. But to my horror, as the first day of my third-grade school opened, there was Mr. Schubert in full Nazi uniform, with a swastika armband and lapel pin.
Pretty soon, many of the kids in class also came to school in their Hitler Youth uniforms. And then they sang their Nazi songs, standing up, while I was "allowed" to stay seated. Not a good omen.
One day, going to school, I was chased by a group of kids yelling, "Jew boy!" But I was a fast runner and eluded them. It was on that day that my parents decided to move me into a private, Jewish school.
A year later, our maid Bertha took me along as she decided to see Hitler, who was visiting Breslau. She told me to be sure to raise my hand in a Hitler salute when his car would pass us. I argued with her that as a Jew I was not allowed to do that, but she insisted. I was scared stiff if one of my former schoolmates might see me.
Then, the car approached, and people around me, including Bertha, became hysterical, screaming, "Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil," and I rendered the Hitler salute. No one saw me, but I was deeply disappointed with Bertha. Why would she love someone who would hate me? But I never told my parents about this excursion.
Our life in Breslau became increasingly more uncomfortable. We had some German friends with children, who I played with, but they terminated contact as soon as Hitler came to power. There were no public restaurants where Jews could eat. Most had signs "Jews Not Welcome" or "Jews Prohibited."
Laws were passed in 1935 which effectively brought about segregation between Aryans and Jews. Bertha could no longer work for us. I was cautioned to never become prominent for any reason in public—behave, behave, behave.
By 1938, my parents were running out of money and they planned a way to leave Germany. My father was determined to look for relatives in the States and convince them to give us an affidavit, which was needed to immigrate to the US. But the waiting time to emigrate, after securing an affidavit, was at least five years. In retrospect, waiting that long would obviously been impossible.
I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah, chanting portions of the Torah in flawless Hebrew, making my parents very proud. I received many wonderful gifts. After we returned from the synagogue, my father told me that he would be leaving for New York to look for relatives. Joy immediately turned to sadness.
Within a couple of weeks, he departed with a US visitor's visa in his pocket. We received letters from him daily and he reported that he had found his relatives, but they were unable to secure him an affidavit, which required a commitment for ongoing financial support.
When he left for New York, he was only allowed to take ten marks,although many travel expenses could be prepaid before his departure. Yet those ten marks, worth about $2.50, were not going to do much for him. He was at the mercy of Jewish relief agencies for financial assistance. However, their assistance was limited, requiring him ultimately to return to Germany.
While we waited for word from my father, two Gestapo agents, Nazi secret police, came to our door asking to see my father. My mother advised them that he was on an international business trip and was expected to return the following month. They told her he was required to report to Gestapo headquarters immediately upon his return.
My mother was devastated. She remembered a business friend named Michaelis, who, had some years earlier, had been requested to report to their headquarters. Within hours, his body was found outside on the pavement, after he had allegedly fallen from a third-story window.
My mother sent a coded message to my father telling him not to return. She was afraid that the mail might be monitored. My mother now faced a terrible dilemma. Could we just leave and join my father?
The affidavit route was not going to work for us. We did not have time to wait five years. Could she get us a visitor's visa and join him? Would we be able to stay in the US or would we be forced to return to Germany? And if so, would we be arrested and placed into a concentration camp?
All throughout the city there was graffiti, "JIKZ," which everyone knew meant "Jews into Concentration Camps." A decision had to be made. Then, for her, came another small push.
The Jews of Germany were ordered to submit their passports to be stamped with a big "J." My mother assumed that the next step was the confiscation of passports. The fear of losing her passport made her go to the US consulate in Breslau to seek a visitor's visa. If it was disclosed that my father was already in the States, she probably would not receive one. Luckily, she got the visa, but it only pertained to her own travel and did not include me.
Completely out of character, she approached the German consulate clerk and paid him to add my name to the visa. She now had the option for us to join my father. My mother now asked me "Should we leave?"
It was a crucial, difficult question. I had my friends, a new BMW bicycle, my stamp collection. But I knew we were not wanted here in Germany. I contemplated briefly and then said, "Let's go!"
My mother cautioned me not to tell a soul that we would be leaving in a couple of days.
Well, there was one more soccer game to play. I took my favorite position and we played. But this time I was distracted and we lost the game. I said: "So long, see you next time!" But there was not to be a next time, and I would never see or hear from any of my friends ever again.
During the next night, she and I packed one suitcase each. She took a chance and packed some silverware. But I had to leave my bike, my stamp collection, and my many other prized possessions behind.
At 5 a.m., we silently slipped out of our apartment, without waking up Mrs. Griffith, the suspected Nazi informant who had been placed in our apartment by the Gestapo.
We boarded a train for Berlin, where my mother said goodbye to her 86-year-old father, as well as her older sister and her family. It was a sad goodbye, since the future was not obvious to anyone.
Her father died within a year, presumably when taken to a concentration camp, but her sister escaped with her family to Australia. She would never see either of them again.
A couple of days later, we boarded a train for Amsterdam. As we approached the German/Holland border, my mother cautioned me to keep my mouth shut "Do not volunteer anything!" We had in our possession: our passports, our suitcases, our money (ten marks each), pre-paid, first-class return tickets on the Holland America Line, as well as two weeks of pre-paid New York hotel reservations.
A German border guard entered our railroad compartment, and my mother got very tense. He asked if anyone had anything from a long list of presumably contraband items and there were no answers from the six passengers in our compartment. Then he asked if anyone had a camera.
"I have one!" My mother gave me a look, which I could tell she was ready to kill me. I had not kept my mouth shut. I showed him my box camera. He looked it over and returned it to me. There were no further questions and the train moved on.
We had crossed the border. Was there any possibility of a safe return?
In Amsterdam, my mother had heard that the banker Rothschild was helping refugees. She had the address and went to see him while I stayed with her cousin Kurt, who had fled with his family to Holland. When she returned, she was quite cheerful. She received a substantial sum of money—but I never found out how much.
We said good-bye to Kurt, his wife Fanny, and their 13-year-old son, David. Their approaching fates were concentration camps, which somehow Kurt and Fanny managed to survive. But David died there in freezing weather, in an open field, without food or water or adequate clothing, along with about a hundred other children, as his father watched.
Of course, we had no inkling of that. We returned to the train station to take the train to Rotterdam, where we boarded the steamer Staatendam of the Holland America Line, a ship that would be at the bottom of Rotterdam harbor a year later.
My mother had bought first-class tickets, since there was really nothing we could do with our money, which we were forced to leave behind. And there was a chance that we could cash in the return tickets if we didn't have to use them.
All this comfort masked the prospect of what could occur at arrival in New York. My mother was well aware that if the immigration authorities on Ellis Island knew that my father was already in-country we might very well be told to take an immediate return voyage back to Germany. She again became tense as we approached the New York harbor. But then came a big surprise.
All first-class passengers were invited to disembark directly through customs. All others were diverted to Ellis Island for detailed examination. A quick check through customs and there was my father waiting for us on the pier. What a happy reunion! Tears were shed.
It was October 30th, 1938. November 9th, 1938, was the date of the German pogrom against the Jews called Kristallnacht, or "Night of the Broken Glass." A Jewish student had shot a member of the German embassy in Paris, which served as an excuse to implement a prior-planned attack on the German Jews. Jewish stores were smashed, synagogues were burned and thousands of Jews were arrested. A large fine was imposed on all the German Jews.
Every newspaper in the States carried the news, which we anxiously followed. It was a great tragedy-but ironically, not for us. After that pogrom, no more Jews were forced to leave the States to return to Germany. President Roosevelt issued an executive order which allowed all in-country refugees to stay in the US on a permanent basis—our visitor's visa was extended indefinitely.
The timing of our escape was indeed a miracle. We were saved.
By the end of November 1938, I was enrolled in seventh grade in a junior high school in New York City and subsequently, I went to Stuyvesant High School there. The war started in Europe in 1939, and my father received permission to work. The war reached us on December 7th, 1941. Then, in September of 1943, one month after my 18th birthday, I was drafted into the US Army and sworn in as a US citizen during basic training, in Columbus, Georgia.
I was shipped overseas as an infantry replacement on the Queen Mary, returning to Europe in September, 1944. In Belgium, it was discovered that I spoke German and so I was sent for a two-week course to become an intelligence agent. I served during the Battle of the Bulge and later in the Rhineland and central Europe campaigns, tasked with securing building and personality targets and arresting persons suspected of war crimes.
I met up with the Russians at the Elbe River as the war was ending and later was assigned to guard war criminals and to oversee German prisoners of war, who helped me crate and ship Nazi documents back to the States in support of future war-crime prosecutions.
I returned to the States in May 1946 and was discharged in the rank of Staff Sergeant. But I stayed in the Army Reserve, went to college, and upon graduation was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Regular Army. I served a total of 35 years, with three more tours in Germany during the Cold War, and one year of war-time service in Vietnam. I retired in the rank of Colonel, in 1978.
I share my history as a way to honor the memory of my family members who were killed in the Holocaust. My 11 murdered family members were: Rea Cohn, Isidor Cohn, Richard Brodda, Jenny Brodda, Hugo Brodda, Bertha Brodda, Max Berdass, Else Berdass, Saul Pottlitzer, Herman David, David Josephson.
My family members who survived fled to Holland, England, Italy, Haiti, Australia, Israel, and the United States of America.
I hope that my experience, and those of all Holocaust victims and survivors, will serve as a warning of what can happen when hate and antisemitism go unchecked in a society, and be an inspiration for people to make better choices to prevent such atrocities in the future.
Thank you—and God bless America!
>> Bill Benson: Welcome. Thank you for joining us for First Person: Conversations with Holocaust
Survivors. I'm Bill Benson, and I have hosted First Person since it began at
the Museum in 2000. Each month, we bring you first-hand accounts of survival of
the Holocaust. Each of our First Person guests serves as a volunteer at the Museum.
We are honored to have Holocaust
survivor Frank Cohn share his personal first-hand account of the Holocaust with
us. Frank, thank you so much for agreeing to be our First Person.
>> Frank Cohn: Well, thank you very much and hello, everybody. I'm glad you joined.
>> Bill Benson: And Frank we have a short period, an hour, and you have so much to share with us
we'll get started. Frank you were born in
the Holocaust and the Second World War, please tell us about your family and your first few years.
>> Frank Cohn: Well I was brought into a classic middle
class family in Germany, and it was a Jewish family. Here you see my mother
and father and my canary bird. This was for my sixth birthday, I believe. It
was a happy birthday, a sign that's showing right there. Anyway I was the
only child and the way middle class families worked -- well first of all, my
parents had a sporting goods store and that's what provided them with the
income to live very comfortably. And as an only child -- first of all, we had a
live-in maid which middle class families had, and when I came along they got
another girl to help them take care of me. So it was a very comfortable life and
of course, I don't remember anything about the first two years or so.
>> Bill Benson: In the 1920s the Nazis were a small, radical, fringe
political movement that was attempting to seize power in Germany and they
regularly engaged in street violence. Your uncle Max was attacked by a group
of Nazis in 1927. Tell us what happened.
>> Frank Cohn: Well of course, I was too young at that
point but there was legal work that was going on, and I guess I was about five
years old when I heard the adults talking with each other. They never
explained these things to me, but the kids do listen and they listen and
they form their own opinions. And I could hear that this man who was my
uncle was attacked by a bunch of Nazis just because they found out he was
Jewish and they had him in the street and they killed him
for no specific reason at all except that he was Jewish.
This was a bit of a frightening situation for me because I knew I was
Jewish and I heard now that these Nazis were killing Jews, so the term Nazi
became fearful to me at a very early age. And I recall also I looked out of the
window from my apartment that was situated right across from a finance
office and that finance office somehow drew a lot of people for demonstrations
and there were fights between the Communists and the Nazis and this -- I
asked about this and that was explained to me that we really don't like either
one of these groups. And Nazis again was a dangerous thing that came into mind
and it just stuck with me for all the years I was there.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, after your Uncle Max was killed in 1927, Adolf Hitler came to power in
seven years old. Can you share with us
some of your first memories of this period?
>> Frank Cohn: Well the first thing that happened was right after he came to power. The
Nazis started demonstrations in front of stores owned by Jews as they did our
store, our sports goods store, and my father saw the sign that says, "don't buy
from Jews," and he recognized that this was going to be a losing proposition and
he decided right then and there to get rid of the store, and he sold it at the
best price that he could get. And then he had to see what else he could do and he
turned to selling bales of cloth to either manufacturers or tailors or
individuals who needed some some cloth. And we had to, because of this change, we
had to move into a cheaper apartment and that apartment immediately got one
room where all these bales of cloth were stacked up to be sold.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, please tell us about your experience in the second grade and about
your teacher, Herr Schubert.
>> Frank Cohn: First of all, my first grade teacher was not memorable. To me, he was very old. He
was at least 50 years old or so. Anyway, second grade came in and there came
Herr Schubert and he was a young fella somewhere in the late 20s or early 30s, I
would suspect. Of course I never asked him how old he was but thinking back, I
was really enthused with him and I thought he really liked me. And then I
heard he was coming back in the third grade to teach us as well, and I was all
excited and I was waiting for him to come, and he came in full Nazi uniform as
you can see him in the middle of that picture. Very soon -- yep, that's me. And
pretty soon all the other kids in the class started to be in the Hitler Youth
and they got all these uniforms, paraphernalia that they wore to class
like a hat or a belt or shirt or whatever. And here was the class that
made me an outcast because when they started to sing the Hitler songs, I was
told, "You're Jewish. While everybody else has to stand up you can't, you gotta stay
seated." Of course a kid who sits while everybody else stands is not going to be
a very popular kid so I was not popular, I was an outcast.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, how did Herr Schubert actually treat you in the midst of all those changes?
>> Frank Cohn: Well actually, he treated me very fairly
aside from the fact that he separated me from others when they sang their Hitler
songs. If anybody started to pick on me, he didn't want that. I think he wanted
order in his classroom. But that was not the problem for me. After the class, there
were kids who found out that I was Jewish and they chased me yelling, "Jew
boy, Jew boy!" But I was a very fast runner and I was able to evade them and
when I told my parents about that, they said, "Well, we'll have to change that." And
they then disenrolled me from the German public school and enrolled me
into a Jewish private school, and I was certainly much more comfortable in the
Jewish private school. About just a few months later in 1935, laws
were passed when Jews no longer were allowed to be in public school and at
that point the parents would have had to get me transferred into the Jewish
school anyway but I was one step ahead. And here I am in the first row I
think they can kind of put a circle on me...
>> Bill Benson: There you go.
>> Frank Cohn: Yeah, that's me. And this was a boys and girls class, different from the public school but I
was very comfortable and I had lots of friends among the boys. The girls were
scary because I was an only child, I wouldn't know how to deal with a girl.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, tell us about your gym teacher in your private Jewish school.
>> Frank Cohn: I loved my gym teacher and I wasn't
particularly good in gym and he knew that of course, but somehow he singled
me out and sometimes I saw him in the synagogue, and he would motion to me
to come and sit next to him, and I was always thrilled to do that. And
somewhere along the line, he told us about his trip to the United States and
he told us about the skyscrapers, he told us about the Statue of Liberty and what
that meant, and then he told us about the Horn & Hardart restaurants. Now those
were restaurants where you had to have a lot of coins, and you put your coins in
and you opened a little door and lo and behold, there was either a soup or an
entrée or dessert, whatever you want, and you could see that of course in advance
by looking through those windows. And I was really all excited about something
like that and I thought to myself, one of these days, maybe I'll get to the States
and I'll go to a Horn & Hardart restaurant after I look at all the
skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty, but I was all focused on that even
though there were no plans at all for me to go to the United States.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, throughout the 1930s the Nazi regime implemented more
restrictions on Jews throughout Germany. How did that impact life for you and your parents?
>> Frank Cohn: Well it was a very subtle and -- they
called it like slicing salami, always another slice and another restriction.
And somehow of course it made our community pull together as a Jewish
community because we would have no more relationships with the Germans
in Germany. And in 1935 the law specifically segregated us from the
Germans, and we had to let go of our maid Berta, who was almost like a second
mother to me, but she was no longer allowed to work for Jews. Germans were
not allowed to work for Jews. And then the restaurants started to get signs
"Jews not desired" or "Jews forbidden," and pretty soon there were no just
restaurants that we could go to. And I was in a soccer team but it was all
Jewish players of course, and we could only play Jewish teams, we could
never play anybody else. And so it was. We got ourselves completely separated
but the one thing that became a focus to me was the parents admonishing me to
always behave. Behave, behave! And of course they didn't want ever to have
ourselves be called to the attention by the community
and I understood that I really had to toe the line.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, even though this was an extraordinarily difficult time, you were
able to celebrate your Bar Mitzvah when you turned 13 years old. Tell us about it.
>> Frank Cohn: Yeah there I am, probably just a little bit before
my Bar Mitzvah. And I had to study for the Bar Mitzvah and perform in the synagogue
by presenting certain prayers and so forth. And I must have done pretty well
because I was congratulated and then there were lots and lots of presents for
me, one of which was a BMW bicycle! That was my first bike and I was all
enthralled about my bike and then goodness knows how many pen and pencil sets I
received, and of course the congratulations from all my friends and
such. So it was a terrific feast that I was experiencing there, being the center
of it. And then a little bit later my father pulled me aside and said, "I have
some serious talk to make with you." And he told us, well he told me,
that he had really lost the ability to earn a living in Germany and he had to
do something else. He had some distant relatives in the States and he was going
to go to the States to see if he could find him and get an affidavit. Now an
affidavit is a document that guarantees that the people that
received the affidavit will never become a burden to the government. So the person
who is executing the affidavit must have enough money to support those people who
he has guaranteed will not become a burden. Anyway, my father made the
preparations to leave because only he was allowed as a visitor to take out of
Germany, by German law that is, was
arrangements had to make in advance: he could book his hotels in advance and his
his voyage in advance and such and pay for that in Germany before he left.
But when he left he only had 10 marks, so he was at the mercy of the Jewish relief organizations.
>> Bill Benson: When he got to the United States what did he find? What happened?
>> Frank Cohn: Well he did discover it all and found all his distant relatives and they were
very nice to him. They entertained him and invited him and such but none of
them was in a position -- because of the depression in those days, they did not
have the money to support an affidavit and he had to stay a little bit longer
to see if he could find someone else to give him an affidavit. And believe it
or not, it was a very lucky thing that that happened to him.
>> Bill Benson: And I know you'll tell us a little bit more about that a little bit later. And
of course Frank, while your father had gone to the United States to seek the
affidavit, you and your mother remained behind in
Germany. Tell us about the very frightening
encounter that you and your mother had at your apartment in Breslau, and also
tell us about your parents' friend, Mr. Michaelis.
>> Frank Cohn: Ah. Well, it was because he had
to stay longer that he was not home when two Gestapo agents came to our door
looking for him. And my mother told them that he was on a business trip overseas,
and she was instructed to advise him the minute he got back to
report to Gestapo headquarters. Well, that sort of raised a red light in
both my mother's and in my mind immediately because we associated it
with a story that we heard, that had been told about a business acquaintance
of my father by the name of Michaelis. And Mr. Michaelis was one who also
received the request to report to Gestapo headquarters and he did that, and
a few hours later he was found on the pavement in front of the headquarters. He
had either jumped or pushed out of the third floor window and that came to
our mind immediately and my mother, when the Gestapo left, wrote a letter to my
father to whatever he does he better stay in the States because if he were to
come back right now he would be arrested by the Gestapo.
>> Bill Benson: And Frank, during this time that you're describing, a British informant
for the Gestapo was placed in your home with you and your mother. How did that
come about and what effect did that have on your life?
>> Frank Cohn: There was this lady that came to our door with an official document that said
that we were obligated to provide her with a bedroom, and of course with an
official document like that, there was no refusal and we made a room available for
her. And she introduced herself as a British lady and she was trying to be
very nice as a matter of fact, and offered herself to provide me with
English lessons and I accepted, and I had two English lessons which proved
very valuable later on. Although we never discussed that of course and my mother
had pulled me aside and said, "Now we have to be very careful what we say in this
apartment because this lady is reporting to the Gestapo." So
whenever we wanted a conversation she told me, "We have to go outside for a
little walk," and that's a conversation we had very soon thereafter. She said,
"Let's go outside," and she said to me and asked me, "Should we go?"
And I knew immediately what she meant, and this was a rough question for me
because all my friends were there. I was on it -- here's one of them, Peter
Friedlander. He and I were together on our soccer team and I had a nice
position up on the front line which I liked, and I had a stamp collection, I had
that BMW bike which I loved. So there were lots of things that would have kept
me in Germany, but I didn't really hesitate. I understood that I was an
outsider in this country and that the people in the country really didn't want
me and I said to my mother, "Let's go." And she said, "Okay, but you've got
to keep your mouth shut and don't talk about this to anybody."
And I listened to her. I had one more soccer
play to a team -- the team had one more game to play and I came to it and I
was very distracted and I helped them lose the game. And at the end I said,
"See you next time," but I knew there was not going to be a next time and I never
really heard or saw anything about all of my friends as
to whatever happened to them when I left the next day.
>> Frank Cohn: How did I get out of Germany? Well, as I said, the
next day we were leaving and it was five o'clock in the morning. We had our
one suitcase just like my father the 10 marks the one suitcase and my
mother had made all kinds of arrangements in advance with a --
well, we had first-class passage on the Holland-America Line steamer Statendam,
and we had two weeks of hotel reservations. And our visas, she had
gotten the visa and then the next day completely out of character she
had gone back and bribed an official in the American Consulate to
place my name on that visa, and it was easy because I was on her passport. So at
five in the morning we tiptoed out and so we wouldn't
wake Mrs. Griffith, and we got on the train to Berlin. And in Berlin she said
goodbye to her father who later died in a concentration camp.
She said goodbye to her oldest -- her older sister, but her sister and her
family got out of Germany later to Australia, but she never saw her again
either because Australia was much too far.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, you and your mother made it to the United States on October 30th, 1938. Tell
us about the journey and about your arrival in New York City.
>> Frank Cohn: While the first class passage was a terrific journey -- there's my mother on
the Statendam and I was really living it up. I had all
the enjoyments and the food and whatnot and I almost became a ping pong champion
but one man beat me so I didn't quite make it. And I had no worries whatsoever
and looked forward to getting into New York Harbor, but my mother was very much
concerned because she was worried about going to Ellis Island because she
had heard that people who were coming into the United States first had to go
to enter to Ellis Island where they were interrogated perhaps and the
information could flow out -- because she was not a good liar -- that my father was
already in country and had they known that, they would have recognized we were
not busy visitors, we were refugees and would have put us on the next boat going
back to the States. Here's a picture I took of the skyline of New York with my
box camera in anticipation of what I was going to see as my gym teacher had told
me. I did that also with the Statue of Liberty and I was now all geared up to
go to Horn & Hardart and that was one of the first things I asked my father
when I got off the boat and greeted him and we had our happy reunion. I said,
"Father, take me to Horn & Hardart!" And he sort of chuckled he said, "We'll take
care of that, we'll do that." so you went to those little automatic
vending machines and got your meals and I got my soup, and I got my entree, and I got my dessert.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, just a few days after your
arrival at the end of October in the United States in fact November 9th
through 10th the Nazis perpetrated a vicious assault on Jews, synagogues, and
Jewish-owned businesses known as Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass
which took place throughout Germany and Austria. What effect did that have on your family?
>> Frank Cohn: Of course this pogrom against the Jews
hit all the newspapers all over the world as it did in New York, and my
parents were looking for any news that they could because the people in the
States did not have our address. We made sure that there wasn't going to be any
compromise here, and so we had no way of getting any direct information so we
were very, very concerned about all of our relatives as to what would happen to
them and what we heard about all these arrests, and we knew some of our
relatives would have gone into concentration camps. But the irony of
the whole thing was, that this catastrophe for the Jews became a savior
to us because when President Roosevelt heard about this, he issued an
executive order that stated that nobody would be forced to return to
Germany. So our visitors visa were extended indefinitely and we were saved.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, now that you and your mom and your dad are in New York City, your mother
enrolled you in the seventh grade. What do you remember about attending school in the United States?
>> Frank Cohn: Well of course it was difficult and as I
was an outcast in Germany and the German schools, I suddenly found myself an
outcast again because I couldn't speak English well enough. That I recall on the
first -- the second day in junior high school the teacher turned to me and said,
"Take the waste paper basket and collect the trash." And I couldn't
understand the word she was talking and she had looked at the window. I
thought she wanted me to open the window. I opened the window and of course the
whole class laughed and no kid likes to be laughed at so I had a great incentive
to learn English and I did that well first of all the teachers were very
helpful they got magazines and wrote up the various names of things that were
shown in the pictures and I listened to the radio. Now the radio was difficult
for me because I couldn't understand what was really
the program all about but I couldn't get the intonations so I could avoid
that that German accent I heard the intonations and I tried to copy
what I heard but what really taught me was the movies. And it was 10 cents
for a movie and 10 cents was a lot of money for us but I earned that money.
Believe it or not what happened was there was a Time Magazine program
that was shown, a newsreel program, just before every movie they had this and I
was invited to have an arrangement as if we were in Germany and they had a
blackboard I had to stand next to the blackboard with my head bowed down
and of the blackboard showed something about
that the Jews were the big enemies of Germany, and for that I received a
hundred dollars now just standing there for about a couple of minutes wasn't
worth a hundred dollars so I think they were trying to help a refugee kid,
but that money helped me learn English because it paid for all those movies.
>> Bill Benson: All those movies
Frank, the the United States of course entered the war following the Japanese
bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7,
June 1943. Right after your 18th birthday you were drafted into the US Army.
Please tell us about being sworn in as a US citizen during your basic training and what that meant to you.
>> Frank Cohn: Well when I was drafted, I first had to
go to a reception center that was Fort Dix, New Jersey. And you usually stay
there for three days where you get processed and then you go to basic
training and some other location. Well everybody was processed as I was and
then they left and I didn't. So I went over to my sergeant and said,
"What's with me? I don't have orders." And he said, "Let me check." He came
back, he said, "Well it's very simple. You're an enemy alien." I was shocked.
Anyway, alien -- I never heard that term before. I knew I was stateless because
the passport that I was in, which my mother had, was stamped by the German
consulate in New York as no longer valid. We became stateless that way.
But enemy alien well, he explained, you were brought up and you were born in
Germany. You were brought up in Germany, you had a German passport that was the
last passport you had and Germany's at war and you're the enemy and you have to
be investigated by the FBI. So I stayed there for three months and obviously
I must have passed the investigation because I got orders to for Jack
Fort Benning Georgia for my basic training and one fine day they took me
to Columbus, Georgia the Middle District Court of Georgia and I was sworn as a
U.S citizen and boy I was proud. I was congratulating myself, I patted myself
on the shoulder because nobody else did and I was very, very happy because I was
no longer an enemy alien. I was just like everybody else and I felt great.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, you left the United States for England as an infantry replacement
soldier in September 1944 and you were soon sent to France and Belgium. Shortly
after that you were assigned to an intelligence unit. Tell us about your training for the intelligence unit.
>> Frank Cohn: Well, I was a infantry replacement going
into England and then across to the invasion beaches, to Utah Beach, but
by then they had built a little dock and I never got my feet wet when I got off
the assault boat that we got on. And then we went through France and then
into Belgium, all the way up to the front lines in Malmedy where we went to the
foxholes. But I must have been earmarked because I never got an assignment to any
unit and they had found out I spoke German, so they brought me all the way
back to Le Vésinet near Paris for a two-week course in intelligence and
after that I became an intelligence agent. So the course was designed after a
eight-week course that was given at Camp Ritchie, and some of you might have heard
about the Richie Boys. Well I was not a Richie Boy.
I was a sort of a supplement of a Richie Boy because mine was but a two-week
course and I ended up the same way like everybody else. I ended up with a team, a
six-man team: two officers, two interpreters, and the four of us wore the
same uniform, no insignia on rank, only the US as you see on my cap.
>> Bill Benson: Right.
That was our rank designation. And then we had a driver and a
non-commissioned officer in charge. Now actually the driver outranked me, but he
didn't know that, and I was ordering him around all the time because I needed a
vehicle and I didn't know how to drive. So that team then went all the way
through, all the way to Belgium. And we got into Belgium around the third or
so of December 1944.
>> Bill Benson: And then of course shortly after
that on December 16, 1944, the German military launched what became known as
the "Battle of the Bulge" which was a last-ditch German military
counter-offensive against the Allied armies in the West. You found yourself in
that battle. We have footage of US soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge.
Describe for us what we're seeing here, Frank.
>> Frank Cohn: Well, we were on a defensive and
these weapons were being used to stop the Germans that came up. But the picture
that you're seeing is very typical because what anybody was going to ask you
about the Bulge, the first thing that comes to mind was the cold. It was just
miserable. Not only cold but it was either raining or sleeting or freezing
rain or snow. And we were in -- our mission became
looking for Germans who had penetrated in American uniforms and we
had to patrol in jeeps with the windshield down and no top of course
because we were able, we should have been able to shoot and you can't do it with
either the top up or the windshield up. So even going 25 miles an hour was a
big blast, but I was a PFC and I was lucky that way. I was able to get behind
the captain and he got the blunt of the blast that came in the driving and I hid behind him,
but he never knew that he was helping me to survive in a better way than he was surviving.
But we were all cold and we never got warm.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, if you don't mind, describe for us your first night in the Battle of the Bulge.
>> Frank Cohn: Now that was probably the most frightening night of the entire combat situation that I went through, and
it wasn't because I was in personal danger per se but because of the rumors
that were going out and the orders that we received. For example, I was told to
get onto one of these dirt access roads and to make sure that no German would
come through. That was my order. I had a rifle and I had a flashlight and the
order "don't let any Germans through." So I got in the middle of the road
and the first truck that came, I stopped them and the guy yells out, "What the hell
are you doing there?" I said, "I'm making sure you're not a German." "Son, if you were
a German you'd be dead by now and you want to do anything you're going to get
in the ditch right next to the road." So I thought, well at least he had a point. I
got into the ditch. The next vehicle that came I yelled, "Halt, halt, halt!" They never heard me,
they just went right by me. So I wasn't doing my job. And then there were
shooting going on all over the place and there were rumors about parachuters
coming down. And you just didn't know what was going
on, you didn't know what you were supposed to do and then at midnight they
called me back and we went into a blackout move towards Antwerp. We
didn't know it but Antwerp was really the goal of the German offensive of the Bulge. But we
never got to Antwerp. We got to Namur and that is where we got our orders to look for those Germans.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, you continued to serve in Europe
after the war ended in 1945. In the little time we have left, tell us about the work
you were assigned to do supporting the prosecution of war criminals.
>> Frank Cohn: Well this was me right there at the Document Center, the Intelligence
Center in Oberursel, Germany near Frankfurt. And I received a mission to
with a jeep go across Frankfurt every morning and meet a squad of prisoners of
war, German prisoners of war, who helped me to crate documents that we
were sending back to the States that were sent back in support of the
prosecution of these Germans who were going to be tried for war crimes. And
those POWs helped me crate it, and I put the label on top of the crate that these
were secret or top secret documents and out they went, and that was the end of my
responsibility for them.
>> Bill Benson: Tons and tons of papers like we see here, right?
>> Frank Cohn: Absolutely, yeah. Those could have been the documents that I received and we put
in crates. And I got promoted in the meantime and then I became Sergeant of
the Guard. And as the Sergeant of the Guard, it was for the outer perimeter and
we really didn't know who was on the inside of that camp. We always thought it
was Goering, and it wasn't Goering. Goering was imprisoned in Berlin with the other
people who were tried by the Nuremberg tribunal. The people we had, I found out
later, were people who were tried by the second
Nuremberg trial and these were concentration camp commanders and
deputies of the primary Nazis. They also were tried in Nuremberg and some of
them were executed also after the trial. So these were real important people but
we didn't know who it was, it was very good security. The only people we allowed
to enter were the guards and the interrogators and the lawyers who were allowed access.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, tell us if you don't mind about
your return from serving in Europe during the war and reuniting with your parents.
>> Frank Cohn: Well you had to have enough points
before you were shipped back and the points were how long you were in the
overseas theater. And it took me well, it took me a year to get enough
points for me to be able to go back. And when I reported that to my boss at SHAEF
headquarters, Lieutenant Colonel Gronik, he said, "Oh I'm going to help you
go back in style." And he gave me two crates of secret documents, things like I
shipped back to the States, and he said, "I want you to deliver those two crates in
the port of Brooklyn in New York, and I'm going to put you on a Navy ship." And
that voyage on the Navy ship was terrific. It was a little slow but I was
in first-class accommodations. Particularly as far as the soup, the food
was concerned, I never ate that well that entire time that I was in Europe, and the
Navy knew how to feed people. Anyway I got to New York and then I was
stuck in Brooklyn because I came in just before noon and the taxi drivers, they
earned their money on these short trips, and at noon they had a lot of short
trips and they didn't want to take me all the way to Manhattan. After the lunch
hour, one cab driver took pity on me and took me all the way back to Manhattan. I
had my duffel bag and I got into the vestibule in front of my apartment. I
dumped the bag and I couldn't get myself to ring the bell.
I left the building, I walked through the neighborhood and I calmed down a
little bit. I saw these places which I knew well from before I went to
the Army and finally I was in position to go back. I rang the bell and of
course, I was greeted very, very heartily by my mother. She was so happy
to see me. And then my father came from work and he was very happy to see me and
it was a wonderful reunion. But it was a short-lived one because just 10 days
later, he died of a heart attack that was sustained when he was at
he went to the hospital and never recovered. But at least I had this week or so with him before he died.
>> Bill Benson: That must have just been so devastating for you, Frank.
Frank, you shared with us earlier
about some family members who were able to get out to, I think you said
five or six different countries. How many family members did not make it out?
>> Frank Cohn: Oh goodness we had so many distant family members, I really don't
have a number but it must have been well over 30. And they were distributed all
over. Now about eight of them were in the States so we met those again
and we had meetings with them, but we certainly lost personal contact with
all the others because they were just too far away. I did make a trip to Israel
and I saw my cousin over there in Israel. And I had planned to go to Australia,
from Vietnam there was a possibility to go to Australia but I
only had one chance of a rest and recreation, and I went to Hawaii where I
met my wife and my daughter Laura. That was more important than Australia. But a
couple of cousins from Australia actually came to visit us, so there were
some sporadic personal contact, but the family certainly never got together again.
>> Bill Benson: Frank, my last question for you is this: as we face rising antisemitism and
related conspiracy theories, please tell us what we can learn from what you
experienced before and during the Holocaust.
>> Frank Cohn: That's a rough question too because
this is what's going on right now. There's so much hate around and it's the
hate that we have to be careful of and that has to be stopped one way or the
other. It has to be confronted and it has to be confronted early because if you
let the hate fester long enough, then it gets so ingrained that you can't
get rid of it and things like what happened in Germany, where the hate -- and
the hate is not just the antisemitism. The antisemitism is like the canary
bird in the mine. It's a warning signal because pretty
soon the hate spreads to others, and others are pulled into this hate, and
you don't know if you are one of those who are hated or if you might become
a hater. Anyway, the Holocaust is a lesson and that is a lesson that I try to bring
about and confront in these speeches that I have. And the Holocaust Museum is
the perfect place that sponsors me and so many others that can
tell about what can happen if you let the hate fester. And I do hope that I
am able to continue this and talk to young groups particularly and tell them,
learn from history, learn the history lessons so that you don't repeat them
and that is what's so important and that's why I'm here today also.