It’s remarkable how traumatic events can sear into one’s memory, even if one is only a child.
Channah Cohen recalls a lot of incidents from her early childhood, dating back to the day before her second birthday in 1943.
Of course, the circumstances were far from normal. Cohen and her parents were living in an apartment in the heart of Berlin during the Second World War. The building was in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood, a factory district that was a prime target for Allied bombers.
Cohen, whose name at the time was Christa Kirschner, remembers the family hustling down darkened stairways to the basement during air raids. She also recalls a particularly dangerous situation in a subway tunnel near her apartment, when a bomb fell on an entrance, causing a shock wave that almost knocked her onto the track. Someone grabbed her and prevented her from being seriously injured, she recalled.
Cohen, whose recollection of her family’s history is practically encyclopedic, will tell her story at a Yom ha-Shoah program at the Beach Hebrew Institute in Toronto on April 8.
She will also highlight the White Rose movement, the anti-Nazi opposition whose leadership included Hans and Sophie Scholl, who produced leaflets urging resistance to the Nazis. The two were caught by the Gestapo and executed. But they were not the only ones who were disgusted by the regime.
Cohen’s father, Alfred Kirschner, though not a member of White Rose, opposed the Nazis and the war they launched. He refused to give the Nazi salute, which often got him into trouble, Cohen recalled.
Cohen recalls her father, who was forced to enlist in the German army, telling her stories of how, while he was stationed in rural France, he and other soldiers warned civilians of impending Gestapo raids. And while in Russia, some soldiers refused to shoot captured Russian partisan fighters, Cohen said.
A convert to Judaism about 20 years ago, Cohen recalled that her maternal grandfather was Jewish and that there were also ancestors on her father’s side with Jewish roots.
During the Nazi era, her parents had trouble filling out a form attesting to their Aryan blood, but a bureaucrat approved the document and assured them they’d be considered Germans under Nazi law.
Cohen’s mother, Klara Kirschner, became best friends with a young Jewish girl, whose family owned a small fur store. During the war, the family hid the girl – who Cohen knew as “Tante Ingele” – in their apartment, even after nosy neighbours slipped a note under their door saying, “We will report you, Jew lover.”
The girl soon fled for safety elsewhere, Cohen recalled, and after the war, the family tried to find her. Today, there is a memorial stone in Toronto with the words, “Inge Angermann. Perished 1944,” over a Magen David.
After Tante Ingele’s departure, the family hid a Jewish mother and her two children, whose prior hiding place under the floor of a small cottage in the Berlin suburbs was about to be compromised. The family survived the war, was reunited with the father and later moved to Palestine, Cohen said.
For their part, Cohen’s family survived the war in their apartment, one of the few in the neighbourhood that was not completely destroyed by bombs.
In 1953, her family immigrated to Canada, finding a home not far from the Beach Hebrew Institute.
Cohen said she had always been interested in the Bible and when she was around 16 years old, she began reading Jewish and Christian scriptures. She took a particular liking to the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Psalms and Song of Songs.
“I didn’t know what to do with all that,” she said.
Later in life, she took her faith more seriously and enrolled in conversion classes, but even before that, she hosted Passover seders for her Jewish friends.
She converted at age 60 and legally changed her name to Channah Ruth, in honour of two biblical figures she admires.
Cohen, who took the name of her second husband, now considers herself an observant Jew and is a member of the Beach Hebrew Institute, the first shul she found when she arrived in Canada all those years ago.