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Forced into a Double Life

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Dominique Nabokov
Roger Cohen, New York City, 2009

In August 1945, Bert Cohen, an uncle of Roger Cohen, visited a refugee camp in Padua. Raised in South Africa, the son of immigrants from Lithuania, he had spent World War II serving with the South African army in North Africa and Italy. Among the refugees were nearly a thousand Jews liberated from Dachau. Cohen was shocked by their condition—emaciated, sleeping on a bare stone floor, scrambling for cigarettes—and by the contempt he saw in their eyes for his own prosperous state, “well dressed and well fed.” He was ashamed to feel no sympathy for these creatures “less human than animal,” he wrote in his wartime diary. “I could not feel that they were kith and kin of mine.”

Though Cohen did not know it, the refugees might not have been utter strangers to him, as his nephew reveals in his empathic and far-reaching new memoir, The Girl from Human Street. Starting in the summer of 1941, many of the Jews of Šiauliai, the hometown of Bert Cohen’s father, were shot en masse by Nazi troops and Lithuanian collaborators; others were forced into a ghetto. Those who survived until 1944 were marched west to Dachau. Thus a few of his father’s former neighbors could have found their way to that refugee camp in Padua. Only accidents of history protected him from their fate.

In The Girl from Human Street, Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist whose previous books have investigated the stories of American POWs under the Nazis and the fate of four families in the former Yugoslavia, seeks to excavate the forces, both historical and personal, that shaped his own family. His story branches simultaneously inward and outward, from Cohen’s childhood in South Africa and England back to the pre-war Lithuania of his forebears and ahead to his mother’s lifelong struggle with mental illness. Part of Cohen’s aim is to fill in the unknowns: most significantly, the silence that surrounded his mother’s hospitalization, when he was a young child, for what would eventually be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. But he also comes to understand the circumstances of his family as inseparable from the larger story of the Jewish condition in the twentieth century—a story of hope and new beginnings, but also of recurrent patterns of persecution, the trauma of emigration, and the dissolution of family and community bonds.

The guiding spirit of this book is W.G. Sebald, the German writer who, in works such as The Emigrants and Austerlitz, traced the lines of exile and dislocation, of loss and forgetting, that defined the twentieth-century human condition—especially the twentieth-century Jewish condition. In Sebald’s view, which Cohen shares, human history is a series of ever-recurring patterns—the “ghosts of repetition,” as Sebald put it—that inform the course of our lives even as we remain oblivious to them. “Immigration is reinvention,” Cohen observes, and some of the stories here are happy ones, such as his mother’s early childhood in South Africa, far from the hostile Lithuania of her ancestors.

But Cohen, like many of Sebald’s characters, is tormented by the historical ironies he finds impossible to ignore: that his parents were raised in prosperity while the Jews of Europe were murdered en masse; and that the same Jews who escaped the Holocaust by fate or luck would go on, in their adopted homelands of South Africa and Israel, to persecute those with less power—the blacks, the Palestinians. He finally perceives his mother’s bipolarity as somehow connected to the condition, as he sees it, of the contemporary Jewish people as a whole: caught between one place and another, forced to live a double life, silent about the internal contradictions that could eventually destroy a sensitive soul.

For the first waves of Jewish emigrants—including Isaac Michel, Cohen’s maternal great-grandfather, and Morris and Polly Cohen, his paternal grandparents, all from Lithuania—Johannesburg was a paradise. If they worked hard, they could achieve spectacular success. Michel cofounded the OK Bazaars, South Africa’s first large department stores, whose slogan—“You can get it at the OK”—became a national catchphrase. He arrived penniless and spent the last decade of his life as master of an estate in Johannesburg’s toniest suburb, surrounded by servants. Cohen’s parents met there, on the tennis court. Morris Cohen ran a wholesale grocery business that never did quite well enough to make him feel entirely secure; still, he was sufficiently well-to-do upon his death for his wife to establish scholarships in his memory for needy students.

Even the landscape seemed to smile upon the family. Cohen’s father was raised in a house on Honey Street, shaded by a “peppercorn tree with a gnarled old trunk” that produced a crop in every season, the peppercorns turning from green to bright red. His mother was born on Human Street, her childhood “sun-filled…like the yellow Cape peaches, great firm golden orbs that crunched when bitten into.”

But a shadow already looms over this prosperity. “The city spreads on the surface,” Cohen writes, “because of the rich seams below it”—gold mines worked by blacks. In the Europe Cohen’s ancestors left behind, the noose of anti-Jewish persecution is tightening. Not so in South Africa, where “Jews for once were on the right side of things: they were white.” Apartheid was enacted in 1948, seven years before Cohen’s birth. In one of its ironies, whites kept blacks at a distance except in their homes; Cohen grew up surrounded by black servants. The lucky ones were treated kindly: guests who came for Sabbath meals were expected to leave a “token of appreciation” on the counter for the help. (The Sabbath observance seems to have been traditional rather than religious; the family was so assimilated that Cohen’s maternal grandfather made kreplach, a kind of dumpling, stuffed with decidedly unkosher turtle meat.) Cohen’s father, a professor of medicine, served as dean of a dormitory for black students at the University of the Witwatersrand, a job that often involved defending them from white police. As a child brought up in close contact with blacks—the family had living quarters in the dormitory—Cohen cringed at the signs of segregation throughout the city, the beaches and benches for “Blankes” and “Nie-Blankes.”

Prejudice was common also among the Jewish community. One of Cohen’s relatives, a shopkeeper, would scatter change for black customers on a counter to which he had nailed three gold coins and laugh at their futile attempts to pick them up. Most of South Africa’s Jews, in Cohen’s view, were silently grateful that they were not the targets of the Afrikaners’ venom. “If you are busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks, you do not have much left over for tens of thousands of Jews,” he writes. For the most part, as he tells it, the Jews declined to speak up in blacks’ defense: “better just to keep stumm.” Some openly benefited from the regime, such as the brothers Abraham and Solomon Krok, who grew rich running a company that produced skin-whitening creams.

Cohen’s version of this story is somewhat one-sided; in fact, a relatively high proportion of South Africa’s Jews were active in the anti-apartheid movement. He presents the rabbi André Ungar, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, as one of the few who openly condemned white supremacy, noting the unfortunate consequences: in 1956, the year after Cohen’s birth, the Interior Ministry expelled Ungar from South Africa. The Jewish Board of Deputies did not defend him; the Jewish community would not officially reject apartheid until 1985. In the meantime, about a third of South Africa’s Jews, including Cohen’s parents, left the country. But the opposition to apartheid by some of those who remained should be acknowledged.

“Perpetrator, bystander, and resister: the pattern repeats itself,” Cohen writes. He finds the racism of South Africa’s Jews bitterly ironic: Shouldn’t they have realized that the fate of the blacks mirrored the suffering of their former friends and neighbors in Eastern Europe? While his mother attended a luxurious boarding school and his father was getting his medical degree, the Jews of Lithuania were being murdered. Cohen writes:

Hockey continued, rugby was played, as Treblinka and Auschwitz and Majdanek and Chełmno and Bełżec and Sobibór and the pits of Babi Yar consumed the wretched corpses of Jews from the world my parents’ parents and grandparents had left behind.

He recognizes that their ignorance was not their fault: the fate of the Jews of Europe was still largely not discussed. Notoriously, a joint “Statement on Atrocities” issued by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin in October 1943 did not even mention them.

The new emigrants may have wanted to forget about the Jews left behind, but the connection is too deep. After Cohen’s mother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, his father draws up a family tree and places black dots next to the names of those who were known to suffer from bipolarity or depression. There are many dots, representing “a gene that formed an unbroken chain with the past, liable to resurface in any setting and at any moment.”

Determined not to let these connections remain hidden, Cohen travels to Lithuania “to see what might have been.” Close to eight thousand Jews in Šiauliai/Shavli, his grandfather’s hometown, were killed during the war; in Žagarė/Zhager, where his grandmother Polly was born, a massacre of 2,250 Jews took place in October 1941. Not long after, SS Standartenführer Karl Jäger reported triumphantly that “our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved.” The last Jew remaining in Žagarė, Isaac Mendelson, died in 2011, ending a Jewish presence in the town that began in the sixteenth century.

Cohen meets with Mendelson’s son, who says that his father never spoke about the massacre, in which his mother, two sisters, and a pregnant sister-in-law all died. He had escaped into Russia several months earlier, where he worked on a collective farm and later joined a Lithuanian division of the Soviet army. (The sisters of Polly Cohen, Roger’s grandmother, also escaped, ending up in Rome.) Based on a survivor’s account, Cohen fills in the details of the massacre, including the horrific fate of Mendelson’s sister-in-law, who went into labor as she was herded into the forest to be shot and was murdered together with her baby after giving birth.

Cohen also meets a family of rescuers who saved the lives of two Jewish children by hiding them during the war. George Gordimer, born in 1938, was living with his parents and older brother in Šiauliai at the time of the Nazi invasion, and wound up in the ghetto. In November 1943, after the adults had left the ghetto for work one morning, the SS rounded up all the children. Gordimer’s aunt, who had been ill and stayed home, hid him in a barrel; later Andrėjs Kalendra, a Lithuanian friend of his father’s, found hiding places for him and his brother. When his parents came to find him at the end of the war, Gordimer hid from them, too: he did not recognize them. By the time Cohen meets him, late in life, he has suffered for years from bipolarity and panic attacks. “You’re still stuck in the barrel,” a psychiatrist tells him. Cohen is sympathetic to the view that early trauma creates an indelible scar. “Between the ages of three and eight, the brain is forming,” he writes. “Connections are made, but if the psyche is under too much stress, the right connections are not established.”

In The Girl from Human Street, it is Cohen’s own trauma that he is finally investigating: the disappearance of his mother, June, into a sanatorium when he was three; her two subsequent suicide attempts; his childhood in the shadow of her unacknowledged disease. He finds consolation in tracing the disruptions that rattled her life. As a child of only seven, June was sent on her own to boarding school in England, which she despised. After her marriage to Cohen’s father, they emigrated to England for his medical work; this time she would not return. “After South Africa, my mother never got used to London’s dirty-bathwater skies and the dullness seeping from them,” Cohen writes. Transplanted, she withered. “Fresh soil invigorated my father. It overwhelmed my mother in the end.”

Among the ordinary stresses of life in a new country is the peculiar variety of English anti-Semitism, subtle yet damaging. The pressure to keep quiet about one’s Jewishness was constant. Cohen noticed, even as a child, that people’s voices dropped when they said the word “Jew.” (Philip Roth, in Deception, made the same observation.) Though Cohen placed sixth on the entrance exam for the prestigious Westminster School, he was denied the scholarship for which he qualified, because candidates had to “profess the Christian faith”—a stipulation that would not be changed until 1974. Even at home, the Cohens did not talk about their Jewishness or what it meant to them.

A psychiatrist who examined June after her first suicide attempt determined her illness to be biologically based rather than provoked by external stresses. Cohen does not subscribe to this theory. Perhaps the root cause was biological—all those dots on the family tree—but the triggers were circumstantial. June’s first serious bout of depression, after the birth of Cohen’s younger sister, took place only a year after her move to England as a young mother with two small children, far from her family, in a distant marriage, “an emigrant in a cold place with a cool and brilliant man.” In an effort to understand what she experienced, Cohen reads Sylvia Plath’s description of electroconvulsive therapy in The Bell Jar and travels to Surrey to scour the records of the sanatorium, where he learns that his mother’s therapy began on July 30, 1958, a few days before his third birthday: “At least I now know where she was.” This, too, was never spoken of at home. Cohen did not learn about her hospitalization until sixteen years later, when his grandfather, visiting from South Africa, accidentally let it slip.

The pattern of bipolarity repeated inexorably. June’s first suicide attempt followed a period of mania during which she had sold the family’s longtime home and bought another. After her husband found her and had her stomach pumped—“she had taken large doses of Doxepin and Valium,” Cohen writes, “washed down with…alcohol”—she tried to pretend that the incident never happened. A psychiatrist started her on lithium, which reduced the highs but was less effective on the lows. Her second suicide attempt, accompanied by a note to her husband that read “I see no end to our pain,” came only six months after Cohen’s father told her psychiatrist how pleased he was with her progress. “I have tried to measure the agony he went through and concluded that I do not have an adequate frame of reference,” Cohen writes. Ten years later, June was diagnosed with liver and lung cancer. “As far as I’m concerned, this gives me a legitimate way out,” she responded.

This archetype of twentieth-century Jewish life—of being persecuted and of persecuting, of making new homes and leaving them, of disease both literal and metaphorical—ends, inevitably, in Israel. There Cohen goes in search of Rena, “a lovely cousin with an old family curse”: another black dot on the family tree. A generation younger, her branch of the family left South Africa in the early 1970s, disgusted by apartheid. They chose Israel out of idealistic Zionism, “to be part of something bigger than themselves.” Their arrival, just before the Yom Kippur War, coincided with the start of the settler movement.

Rena’s parents, Pauline and Meyer, were split by their political differences. Pauline was dismayed by the rise of settlements all around Jerusalem. Her husband took a more bellicose view: the Arab armies had attacked repeatedly and needed to accept the consequences. Anyway, “the pre-1967 borders were indefensible”—“Auschwitz borders,” as the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously called them. The house in Jerusalem where Rena was born overlooked the disputed territory—a metaphor, as Cohen sees it, for the rift in her parents’ marriage, in her psyche, in Israeli life.

As readers of his newspaper column know, Cohen is a committed Zionist. He believes that Israel, especially after the Holocaust, is essential to Jewish survival; he is sympathetic to Israel’s need to defend itself; and he rejects as “inexact” the comparison of Israeli policies with apartheid. At the same time, he strongly condemns the occupation, which he presents here as dominated by messianic Zionists who pervert the movement’s original meaning with their belief that the nation is divinely entitled to dominion over a Greater Israel. He is horrified by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians—an exploitation and subjugation that Jews, of all people, should reject. “No people has more ethical reason to resist the inebriation of domination than the Jews, most of whose history has involved exclusion imposed by the powerful,” he argues. The fundamental contradiction of present-day Israel—its claim to be a Jewish democratic state and its simultaneous denial of rights to millions of Palestinians—tears apart Pauline and Meyer’s marriage and, ultimately, Rena’s life. Diagnosed as bipolar just after the second intifada begins, she commits suicide by jumping off the terrace of a popular mall in downtown Jerusalem.

Some readers may view this final tracing of the pattern as too much of a stretch. Many Israelis suffer from the contradiction between their own morality and the actions of their government, just as many emigrants uproot their lives without irreparably damaging themselves or their children. A frequent weakness of the view of history as a collage of eternally recurring patterns is that too often, elements that complicate the narrative must be omitted or distorted, because—by their very nature—they do not fit the pattern.

Some of this skepticism evaporates, however, beneath the force of Cohen’s powerful storytelling. The imaginative empathy that he brings even to the secondary figures depicted here—especially Rena, whose story he seems to piece together from interviews with her family and friends—is sometimes breathtaking. At a cultural moment that has become notorious not only for the vast proliferation of memoirs but also for their normally unbridled narcissism, Cohen’s book is written with a generosity that is truly humane.