Forced into a Double Life

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,…

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