Survivor STORY

Herbert Kohn’s family had lived in Germany for 450 years. Both his father and his grandfather fought in the German Army. For centuries, the Kohns thought of themselves as Jewish Germans, not German Jews, and they had many friends among the non-Jewish community. Yet when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, anti-Semitism became the law of the land and people they had known all their lives turned their backs on them. For this, Herbert Kohn has every reason to be bitter and angry. However, today, when he speaks about the Holocaust, he says we should not respond to hate with more hate. Herbert Kohn now encourages us to “learn from the Holocaust so that we, all together, can prevent similar crimes from happening again.”

Herbert Kohn was born in 1926 in the city of Frankfurt am Main and raised just like any typical German boy of that period. He was taught the importance of absolute obedience to the government, his parents and his teachers. Later, Herbert would attribute much of the blame for the Holocaust on this kind of blind, unthinking obedience which children were taught from such a young age and which was such a common characteristic of Germans at the time. He now believes this kind of thinking was exploited by Hitler’s anti-Semitic propaganda, which encouraged ordinary Germans to make the small minority of Jews the scapegoats for all the nation’s problems.

When Herbert was six years old, the Nazi Party came to power and things immediately became worse for the Jews of Germany. At school one day, his teacher asked the class if any of the students were Jewish. Herbert proudly raised his hand. “Go home,” the teacher said, and Herbert, wondering what he had done wrong, was forced to walk home alone. Throughout the country, Jews were no longer permitted to attend public schools and began to face more and more restrictions on their freedom. Attitudes seemed to change overnight. The day after he left his school for the last time, a long-time friend of Herbert’s spitefully said to him, “What are you looking at, you dirty Jew?” Today, Herbert says, “I couldn’t understand what made me different.”

In Germany, discrimination became segregation and segregation turned into persecution. Before too long, extermination would become the policy of the Third Reich. By 1935, Herbert’s father, Leo, realizing how dangerous it was becoming for Jews in Germany, began to make plans for the family to leave the country and come to the United States. However, immigration laws delayed that opportunity.

On the nights of November 9th and 10th, 1938, Germany burst into an organized frenzy of violence and rioting directed at the Jews. More than a thousand synagogues were destroyed, Jewish stores were ransacked and broken glass littered the streets across the country. This eruption of hatred and anti-Semitism came to be known as Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass.”

Even worse for the Kohn family than the violence in the streets was the moment that Nazi Stormtroopers, the SA, came and arrested Herbert’s father. One among thousands of other Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60, Leo was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar. He returned three weeks later so badly damaged from the torment he had suffered at the hands of the Nazis that his hair had turned completely white. “He was unrecognizable,” Herbert remembers. Upon his arrival, he spent the entire night telling his harrowing story to his stunned family. He explained that the only reason he had been let go was because he had a certificate proclaiming that he had been a Frontsoldat, or front-line soldier fighting for Germany in World War I, and that he had been decorated for his military service. Herbert still trembles and squeezes his eyes shut when he thinks about his father’s story. “There was no reason,” he says, for what the Nazis did to his dad.

Leo Kohn, still in danger and fearing re-arrest, left Germany the next day for England. Herbert’s brother, Ernest, followed a few weeks later. Herbert and his mother Irene left their homeland in May of 1939, just four months before Hitler invaded Poland and began the Second World War. The family was briefly reunited in Britain, but money and space were scarce, so Herbert, now twelve, was sent to an orthodox Jewish boarding school near Margate in Kent, which he attended for one year, becoming a Bar Mitzvah and a devout Jew.

Back in Germany, the rest of the family would not be so fortunate. His grandmother died in 1940 of natural causes, but his grandfather, Friedrich Simon, perished in a Nazi cattle car on the way to Minsk. Other family members were murdered during the Holocaust as well.

Although safe from persecution in England, the Kohns were still eager to get to America. While they had visas since 1937, immigration to the United States was controlled by a quota system and the Kohns were not able to depart until April of 1940. Leaving the last vestiges of their old lives behind, they reached America with just each other and scattered pieces of luggage. When they arrived in New York, their sponsor, a distant cousin, told them they could try to find work in the bustling cities of the north, or they could move south and learn the art of farming. Herbert’s father chose the latter.

Soon, Herbert found himself in the small town of Demopolis, Alabama, milking cows every morning for an allowance of 25 cents a week. It was there in Alabama that Herbert saw African-Americans for the first time. To him, it seemed like the segregation they were forced to endure was similar to the discrimination faced by Jews in Germany. Realizing that injustice existed all over the world, Herbert became committed to equality and freedom for people everywhere.

In 1945, at the age of 18, Herbert volunteered for the Army. “I wanted to give something back,” he says. “Germany had taken away my citizenship and all our rights and belongings. My relatives had been murdered. At that time, I wanted to come back and fight Germany for the new country which had accepted me and had given me the opportunity to reach my potential. And yes, there was hate then, too.” To his disappointment, Herbert arrived in Germany just two days before the war ended. Amid all of the victory celebrations, he felt sad. “I cried,” he says, “because I was not given the opportunity to fight the Nazis.”

Back in America, Herbert stayed in the Army Reserve, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He went on to earn both a degree in agriculture from Auburn University and to become a certified public accountant. He now works in the home building business providing affordable housing to low-income families.

Herbert and his wife, Elaine, had two children. Sadly, though, Mrs. Kohn passed away in 1987. The following year, Herbert met Frances Goodman, who had lost her spouse three years earlier. They were married in 1989. Now, between the two of them, they have five children and 11 wonderful grandchildren. In his spare time, Herbert is a frequent speaker and volunteer at the Breman Museum.

In 2003, Herbert and Frances traveled to Germany as guests of the City of Frankfurt. When talking to Germans, he says he was “overwhelmingly impressed” by the “sincere, honest efforts at reconciliation, the complete change of attitudes and the recognition of the terrible crime against humanity” that had been committed.

Although he once felt hatred because of what happened to him and his family, today Herbert says, “I have a new philosophy. Hatred, revenge and retaliation don’t do any good, so I’m trying to get them out of my vocabulary. We certainly cannot change the past, but we can learn from it. I am committed now to sharing my story and experiences so that I can do my part in helping to build a better world for the present and for the future.”

Biography written by Eryk Tahvonen, Georgia State University

Coming to America
So, we came to America and started from scratch. Interestingly enough, we were met by our sponsor's, some relative of our sponsor's, who's by the way still living in Atlanta, Georgia, Joe Hyman, elderly man today, who was a brother of Dora Hyman Stern, who met us in New York and gave us a choice: you can go either to New York and Chicago, and we'll help you get set up, or you can come down South. And we would prefer for you to come down south because we would like for you to become farmers. We would like to show the world to save more lives and more refugees to come to America to do something other than crowd the cities and take jobs away from people, especially just coming out of the Depression. So, we, my father being very idealistic at the time, just out of concentration camp, and we chose to come to, south to Alabama, because they lived in Birmingham, to Birmingham. And then later on to a little town, Demopolis, Alabama, where they had found a farmer that would teach us how to farm. And we started life completely anew. And it was a very, very different life. We'd never been on a farm before, really. And we were, I was at that time 13, my brother was 16 and my parents took a whole new challenge on.

American Dream

So we were very fortunate to get out, to come to America, to get the opportunity. And what anybody may want to say about this country, with all flaws, we got plenty of them, and I've traveled extensively in the last 30, 40 years. This county is the best country in the world. It gives the opportunity to give you, the opportunity to do what's right and to succeed and to reach your potential, where in many countries, no one has that opportunity even. And I'm very proud to be a citizen. As a matter of fact, when I came back, I volunteered to stay in the Reserves. I came back as an enlisted man and went on the GI bill to school in Auburn, by the way, Auburn University, and got a degree in agriculture. And then I came to, I joined the Reserves immediately. And while I was, when I got out of school I became an officer in the Reserve Corps. And I stayed in the Reserves for 25 years and finally retired from the Reserves with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1971. And I did it, it may sound trite, but I felt I had to give something back. It wasn't because of the few dollars that we were paid then, but I felt you had to give something back.

Remembering and Legacy

The message is that when I teach this and talk to groups and children the message is that we have a role not to be bystanders. In schools, I bring in Columbine High School. That's caused because people were bystanders because, there was evidence that some people knew what was in the minds of these people. And they were maybe afraid or turned the other way instead of reporting it in an appropriate way to their parents and to their teachers without getting hurt or without being overt about it. But we can not turn our back, we got to learn that this is happening all the time and it can grow into something like this terrible crime, the Holocaust.

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Herbert Kohn