Feb 17, 2001
unites 'Divided Lives'
A missing piece of one's identity often leads to a protracted search. For Cynthia Crane, the journey took her to her family's roots in Germany. It also led to a book, Divided Lives: The Untold Stories of Jewish-Christian Women in Nazi Germany, which focuses on the plight of others suffering a similar experience.
Crane, 39, an assistant professor of English at Raymond Walters College (an extension of the University of Cincinnati) was born in Hamilton, baptized as a child and raised as a Presbyterian. There seemed to be some mystery as to why her paternal grandfather's surname was Cohn, while her father's name was Crane, but as a child, she didn't pursue it.
"Secrecy was the keyword," Crane says. "Everything was kept under lock and key."
"My father's face became very white when I finally asked why he changed his name. He had locked the memory away. He had repressed the memory of being beaten all day by his German schoolteacher (in the 1930s) to show what a good Nazi and Jew hater he was."
But, having been raised a Christian, her father said he 'didn't know what a Jew was.'
She eventually learned that her father had been considered a mischlinge (mish-LING-eh), or "half-breed" child of Jewish-Christian parents.
"It didn't matter what religion you were," Crane explains. "If you had a parent or a grandparent who was Jewish, Hitler considered you Jewish. Mischlinge were not sent away to the death camps, but they were persecuted in other ways."
Mischlinge saw their families torn apart as relatives were deported to concentration camps while others left Germany. They were not permitted to play with their Aryan friends. Many were brutally beaten.
The beatings in school led to a permanent hearing loss in one ear for her father. His departure from Nazi Germany on Jan. 30, 1939, at the age of 10, with his mother and siblings, undoubtedly saved him from a much harsher fate.
Crane's grandfather, Felix Cohn, was a doctor who preceded his family in moving to the United States in 1938, persuaded by his wife that there were ominous clouds on the horizon.
"He didn't want to leave," Crane says, "but the final knock was when they took his (medical) license away under Hitler's laws in 1938" because his surname was Cohn, although the family had been Christian for generations.
Although her grandfather never changed his name, Crane's father experienced anti-Semitism in this country and changed the family name to Crane in the 1950s.
As Crane began an eight-year research project on mischlinge, the book proceeded to unfold. She discovered a manuscript written by her grandmother, Herta Bahlsen-Cohn. It discussed her life from 1915 to 1939 in Austria and Hamburg before her emigration.
"I retrieved the manuscript from her basement, proof-read and edited it. Initially, my research was to provide additional information and to expand on the foundation of this manuscript. What interested me most, and later became my focus, was her role as a middle-class Austrian Lutheran, an `Aryan' married to my grandfather, an upper- class German of Jewish descent.
"My grandmother is the best story teller. She prizes freedom over anything. She went to business school (in Europe) and was very independent. She thought of the U.S. as a place where people could practice their religion.
"Before she left Germany, my grandmother attempted to help my grandfather's brothers, Carl and Werner Cohn, who had been rounded up on Kristallnacht (Nov. 9 and 10, 1938). Because she was an Aryan with blonde hair and blue eyes, she could maneuver through Germany more readily," says Crane.
When she arrived in Hamburg, Germany, on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1994, Crane researched mixed marriages during the Third Reich. She conducted her work at the Hamburg State Archives and after some bureaucratic delays, found her family's emigration documents.
"The feeling of 'let's not speak of it' extended to all groups: Jews, mischlinge, Germans and the government. My own experiences of secrecy were directly related to what had occurred during the Third Reich," says Crane.
Crane spent the next two years conducting 25 interviews of women who had been mischlinge, eventually using 10 of their stories in her book.
"It was a culture shock, an emotionally draining time," she says. "Sometimes I had to stop. I found I could only do one in a day."
The book was published in November and Crane has found that many people are very interested in its premise. Many from different races and backgrounds are uncertain of their own identities. They can relate to the difficulties people suffered over mixed heritage.
"I am very fascinated with my whole Jewish side, although I am a Christian," she says. "Most people I talked to (in Germany) were Christians. Some had families with an affinity to Judaism. Some hid it.
"The Germans were very efficient and the records don't lie. Revisionists sicken me. For young people, there is danger in that rhetoric. I am still reading about the Third Reich and the Holocaust. After the eight years of writing and researching, I could go on reading books (on this) forever. The main thing is I found a missing piece of my own identity."
Renate Frydman is a Dayton-area free-lance writer.
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