Kelman Cohen says he’s no storyteller.
That is, until he starts talking about his tour of duty with the Canadian Armed Forces during World War II, something he remembers vividly.
He was with the Hamilton Light Infantry Royal Regiment, known primarily by his tag number, B-162032.
Cohen’s memory remains sharp and he has a talent that keeps you glued to your chair listening to his stories.
Private Cohen, now 86 although he appears younger, decided one day while serving overseas to keep written memoirs of his time in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. He figured it was the only way to ensure that his stories would live on.
Known to family members and friends as “Kal,” the Toronto-born Cohen admits his emotions often show when he talks about the war, and for good reason, especially around Remembrance Day, when he reminisces about some chilling days in December 1944.
He calls one of his recollections in particular his “special story.” It’s about Lt. Theodore (Ted) Herman.
Cohen, who has no brothers, talks fondly about Herman, as if the lieutenant was his adopted brother.
Not long after the Allies had landed on the beaches of Dover, Cohen, who was on the way to Calais, met Herman in the bombed ruins of Kleve, just inside the German border. Herman was cleaning his rifle, and the two started a conversation about the destruction of the ancient town.
Cohen said this was the start of a unique bonding.
As he clutches his copy of a European newspaper clipping with Herman’s obituary, Cohen thinks back more than 50 years ago. There’s a short pause, and the story begins about a man whose memory Cohen has cherished fondly.
“There was so much antisemitism in those days, and here I was 19 years old, away from home, scared and Jewish,” Cohen recalled.
“There wasn’t much of an alternative. You did what you had to do – taught to fire first and ask questions later.
“And I remember the shock of boarding a troop train going to Belgium with cattle cars that had the Jewish Star of David painted on them. It looked strange to me, until someone told me they were used to send Jews to the extermination camps. I was completely unaware back then of what the Germans had been doing to the Jewish people.”
Cohen said Herman was a talkative, inquisitive Jewish lawyer, then in his mid-30s, who took great care of him.
“I’ll never forget how he gave me a sleeveless leather jacket. There were some bitter cold nights. [He] told me to wear it and to stay warm. I didn’t take it off until the war ended,” Cohen said. “And he pulled me aside and said we would have a makeshift seder for about 100 Jews in the gym of a school in Kranenburg. Before long, we were back with the troops on the trucks ready to cross the Rhine River.
“It was a war. You worried about staying alive. People didn’t remember about Jewish holidays until he instructed me to write home and send daffodils to my mother on Passover.”
On Remembrance Day, Cohen said he pauses to recall cherished memories of many of his fellow soldiers. But there’s always a special prayer for Herman.
While Cohen never went to Hebrew school or had a bar mitzvah, he memorializes his special friend in his own way.
“I think of him – always. I think of all the good things he did,” said Cohen, who has difficulty with his ears as result of the constant firing of shells during the war.
“There was this battle in Groningen. Troops got separated,” Cohen said, as he paused and his face stiffened. “I remember asking about [Herman], and the soldiers told me that he was killed trying to get a German machine gun bunker to surrender.
“I’ll never forget that moment. It was like someone had hit me in the face. That bothered me a great deal. He was so special. Many of my friends died, and here I was alive. I won a lottery, but this one was for life. I still ask myself: why was I spared?”
The relationship was so close that Cohen, his wife, Vera, and many of his family (three children and seven grandchildren), travelled to the Netherlands, and the Canadian War Cemetery in 2005 and again last year to pay tribute to his fallen friend and hero.
“I am getting older and don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this but he was special, like the brother I never had,” Cohen said.
Four years ago, Cohen hit several roadblocks trying to locate Herman’s relatives. Then, by fluke, he met Herman’s brother.
“I told him what Lt. Herman meant to me, how he was killed, and we both cried,” Cohen said. “We had just that one contact.”
With numerous military and World War II pictures and photo albums in his home, Cohen said he quite often sits on his favourite chair thinking about his friends who paid the ultimate price.
“Death is a strange thing, and those Canadian soldiers, like my friend Lt. Herman, gave so much for what we have today,” said Cohen. “I sure hope Canadians remember this – and not just for one day each year.”