Aug 19, 1994
grandmother's story inspires Fulbright scholar
When Hamilton native Cynthia Crane begins work on her doctoral dissertation later this year in Germany, the life of one of Hamilton's "hidden gems" will be on her mind.
Crane will not be writing about her grandmother, Herta Cohn. But her research will cover over women who lived in Germany at the same time as the 91-year old West Side resident who came here 54 years ago.
Crane, a doctoral candidate in the department of English at the University of Cincinnati, was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. She proposed to write about the lives of women in Germany during the period between the two world wars. Her project was inspired by her studies of 20th -century continental women's autobiography, and by her grandmother's life story. This is part of Herta Cohn's story.
"I was never afraid!" Cohn said of the years just before she and her family fled to the United States to escape persecution.
Because her husband's family had Jewish ties, they began to disappear into camps.
Cohn had no Jewish blood, but that didn't guarantee safety for her children. Her son was spanked every morning when he got to school "to prove to everyone that the teacher was against the Jews.
"In fact, we were Lutheran and my husband used to tell the children he read the New Testament in Greek. But the Nazis considered him Jewish because his grandparents were Jewish."
When her brothers-in-law were picked up and taken to the camps, Cohn began to insist that her husband leave. Her husband's brothers were "caught by the Nazis on Crystal Night, in November 1938." The night came to be called Crystal Night because so much glass was broken as the Nazis swept the city.
"The only fight my husband and I ever had was about hit getting away," she recalled.
After the Germans took his medical license, Dr. Felix G. Cohn agreed to leave.
Later, Herta Cohn managed to get her four children to the United States. As they prepared to leave, '"I felt free when I saw that United States boat," she said.
But in Hamilton, during World War II, the family members were considered "enemy aliens" and were restricted as to where they could travel. They were not, Cohn remembered, supposed to walk on the sidewalk "in front of any factory."
Still, it was easier than nearly starving to death. At about age 12, "during the second year of the First World War," when she came with her family from Austria to Hamburg, Germany, times were very difficult.
But her family worked hard.
Her father became a government official in Hamburg. Herta studied at a business school, married at 19 and had a government job. Her husband's practice was doing well. But she grew up watching things change.
"My sisters and I saw it coming," she said, describing the young people of Hamburg. "I was exposed to them all along. My sisters left Europe. "
In Hamilton, the family settled in and soon Herta Cohn became an active member of the community. A charter member of the League of Women Voters, she said, "one of our biggest fights was to get better milk in the city. We also wanted a trained official to head the health department."
She studied American history under Ella Mae Cope, who influenced her to start the Round Table Club (Chestnut Club) to which she still belongs. Members must write a scholarly paper on a regular basis.
Cohn has written those, but her major writing project is an autobiography which is finished but as yet unpublished.
"Very few women have written about that time," Crane said. "My grandmother treasures freedom. She is so sharp at age 91. I think she is Hamilton's hidden gem."
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