Survivor shares firsthand Holocaust tale
At 13, Frank Cohn had a pretty good life: a new bike, a growing stamp collection and a coveted position on the soccer team.
But he also had a growing sense of unease. A few years earlier, his teacher had come to school wearing a Nazi uniform. His classmates soon sported Hitler Youth hats.
As a Jew, Frank could sit down while his classmates sang Nazi songs during school. But after school, he had to outrun the bullies.
It was tough being Jewish in Germany during the 1930s.
“Most people thought, ‘Well, it can’t get any worse than this,’” Cohn told a group of Stafford County middle school students Thursday morning.
But it did get worse.
At first, things seemed to go well for Frank: He transferred to a private school for Jewish children, and lived a life of relative comfort until his bar mitzvah at 13.
Then, his father left for the United States, hoping to find a relative to sponsor the family on an immigrant visa.
Shortly after, the government required Jews to have their passports stamped with a “J.”
Cohn’s mother grew troubled, and she asked her adolescent son for advice. Cohn considered his new bike, his soccer team.
Then he thought of the signs popping up around town, saying, “No Jews Allowed.” He remembered his third-grade teacher’s Nazi uniform.
“I realized we ought to get out,” he told students at A.G. Wright Middle School.
He and his mother made their way to America, where they reunited with Cohn’s father. The family struggled to get by as refugees in a new country.
But they heard about concentration camps and never considered returning to Breslau.
At 18, Cohn was drafted by the U.S. Army, which first checked to make sure the “enemy alien” would be loyal to his new country.
Cohn was first trained to be replacement infantry but later became an intelligence officer because he spoke German.
After the war, Cohn went to college and got married, then joined the Army as an officer, making his way through the ranks and retiring as a colonel.
Cohn shared his story Thursday morning as part of a lesson on genocide.
“There are little bits of what happened in Germany in the world today,” he told the students. “You’ve got to be watchful, and that’s the lesson I hope you take with you.”
The students listened to Cohn in the school library, by a sign which read, “Today, you will learn the difference between primary + secondary sources.”
Students had been learning about the importance of hearing firsthand accounts of historic events, said teacher Robert Long.
Madeline Brence, an eighth-grader at A.G. Wright Middle School, said Cohn’s talk underscored the importance of primary sources.
“It makes the story a lot more personal and in-depth than hearing it from a textbook,” she said. “You get to hear it firsthand, and that really makes a difference.”
When it comes to the Holocaust, getting to hear an account in person is an opportunity that won’t be available much longer.
During his speech, Cohn showed class pictures from his childhood and told the students that most of the people in the photographs didn’t survive the war. The students in his class at Jewish school perished in concentration camps, while the students in his German class died on the front lines.
And now, many of the people who did survive World War II are now aging and dying.
Their stories are important because they can help prevent future genocide, said Steven Adleberg, educational outreach associate with the Jewish Community Relations Council.
That group helps about 200 survivors in the Washington area tell their stories to school, church and civic groups.
“This was really a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” said David Cohen, an eighth-grader at A.G. Wright Middle School. “There aren’t many Holocaust survivors left, and it’s a great honor to meet him.”
The students said Cohn’s talk helped them learn more details about the Holocaust and about the importance of speaking out against genocide.
But the students also shared some knowledge with the retired colonel—they taught him about the “selfie.”
The group of students gathered with Cohn after his speech, and someone took out a turquoise-covered cellphone, held it up and snapped a picture.
Cohn was a quick study. As another student approached with her cellphone in hand, he asked, “Selfie?”
Amy Umble: 540/735-1973