A tripping stone for the Cohns

Olivia Girard

At the start of class 8, I asked four pupils whether they could imagine undertaking a tripping stone project with the whole class. The four pupils were to take on the initial research since this would not have been feasible with the whole class in the archives. The class was always kept informed about all steps and fully included at a later point. “All of us were familiar with the small golden stones in the streets of Berlin but until then we hadn’t really been that interested in them,” said one pupil who led the research.

In order to lay a tripping stone, information has to be gathered about the selected person. The Tripping Stone Coordination Centre in Berlin and the Tripping Stone Project for the district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg sent us information and a list of all the Jewish people who had lived in Ritterstraße, where our school is located, at the time; also a list of Berlin authorities where we could go to look at the files. We selected five names of people who had lived near the school. We found no names for where our school premises are situated today.

Research work

One difficulty was that we did not know whether the house numbers had changed after the War. And we did indeed find out through a website for historical maps that the addresses chosen by us were often a block away. We sent the names to the Reparations Bureau, the State Archive and the Brandenburg Main State Archive and also received a quick response that they had files on all the names except one, which we would be allowed to look at.

Five of us went to the Reparations Bureau and were allowed to inspect the files. We could make scans of the sections that seemed important to us but most of the material gave us little information about the people. There was a particularly thick file on Leo and Hedwig Cohn (nee Singer). So we decided to place our tripping stone for this couple. However, there was too little information in the files for a brief biography. So we waited for the response from the State Archive. As Heinz Cohn, the couple’s son, had applied for reparations in Germany ten years after the War – like many descendants and survivors – there were documents there.

Among the three million address cards kept in the State Archive, we found one which indicated that Franz Emanuel Cohn, another of Leo and Hedwig’s sons, had died at the young age of 17 in Virchow Hospital in Berlin-Wedding. We looked for the death certificate.

We also learned that Heinz Cohn had a four-year-old son called Wolfgang Immanuel when he emigrated to the USA with his wife Käthe Else Cohn. We approached the Jewish cemetery in Berlin-Weißensee and it confirmed that Franz Cohn was buried there and that he had died of an inflammation of the middle ear. We searched for the names we had on the Internet and discovered an obituary in the Washington Post for Wolfgang Immanuel Cohn who had changed his name to Warren Immanuel Cohn. From this we were able to glean that he had two children with Rivca Sara Cohn (nee Goschen): Philip M. Cohn and Rachel D. Cohn. We found a certain Rachel Cohn and of course we wrote to her but unfortunately she was not the person we were looking for.

Meanwhile, the whole thing had turned into a class project. The class divided into working groups dealing with different tasks: the history of the Cohn family, requests for an interview with the great-grandchildren Rachel and Philip Cohn, as well as listening to the interviews for biographical information. One group documented all the findings and steps of the research in a log. Another two groups studied the Second World War and Judaism, some pupils took on the translation into English.

In this way a brief biography was produced from all the information that had been collected as well as a documentation about the work process.

Conversation across space and time

At the same time, we found via Facebook the right Rachel Cohn, a doctor in the USA, and her brother Philip Cohn, an electrical engineer living in Israel. With such a common surname as Cohn we were lucky to have found the right descendants – and that there were any who were still alive!

It was an exciting moment when we received an email from Rachel Cohn before Christmas. She lives in the USA with her husband and three small sons. One part of the class prepared an interview which we held with Rachel and then Philip via Skype. It was hard to believe that the USA or Israel were so far away! Rachel and Philip became part of our everyday school life and familiar persons. As part of this, the pupils not only concerned themselves with the past but also with existential questions of what it means to be human: how can we retain our humanity under inhuman and incomprehensible circumstances?

The past becomes present

Philip Cohn travelled for the first time in his life from Israel to Berlin for the placing of the stones. In conclusion of the project, we visited the grave of Franz Cohn in the Jewish cemetery in Berlin-Weißensee with him and discovered more graves of family members.

On 16 May 2018, the school community gathered at the place where the stones were to be placed, today the house at Ritterstraße 55A which at the time was Ritterstraße 56. A silent circle of people formed as the site was prepared on the pavement where the two stones were to be placed. The stones were set in concrete, water and sand and then polished. The pupils of class 8b reverently laid white roses in a circle around the stones. Philip Cohn spoke a prayer in English and Hebrew, a pupil played a Jewish song on the cello.

A solemn commemorative ceremony followed in the school. We remembered Leo and Hedwig Cohn with addresses, poems and brief biographies. Philip Cohn, the great-grandson, also spoke a few words.

Leo Cohn was born in Berlin on 26 January 1875. He grew up and went to school there. He then went to work as an assistant accountant in a machine and bronzeware factory. A short while later he established his own export agency and married Hedwig Singer who was born on in Berlin on 18 October 1876.

The Cohns led a good and relatively  prosperous life when they had their first child, Heinz Cohn, in 1906. They lived in a five-room apartment, had a maid and went on regular family holidays. When the Nazis seized power in January 1933, the family became increasingly worse off. The ever more draconian anti-Jewish laws placed ever greater restrictions on the private, economic and cultural life of Jewish people and Leo Cohn saw himself forced to move with his family into a smaller apartment in Ritterstraße, the heart of the noisy business district in Kreuzberg. Their son, Heinz Cohn, was no longer living at home by this time.

All Jews gradually had to hand over all their valuable possessions such as radios or fur coats to the ruling powers. Heinz Cohn lost his job but nevertheless managed to find work as an assistant in the National Representative Agency of German Jews. He married Käthe Else Isaack and in 1937 they had a son, Wolfgang (subsequently Warren) Immanuel Cohn. Heinz and Käthe had planned for a long time to leave Germany; in the autumn of 1941 they succeeded in escaping via Portugal to New Jersey. Two months later Germany banned all Jews from leaving the country.

Leo and Hedwig Cohn were deported some months later. On page 45 of the transport list it said that on 13 January 1942 they were transported to Riga via Grünewald in a train carrying altogether 1,034 people. The train reached Riga three days later but Leo and Hedwig Cohn never arrived. The assumption is that they suffered the same fate as so many people on the way to Riga: that they were executed in the open in a mass shooting.

Leo and Hedwig Cohn never returned home. The tripping stones which were placed might be like a homecoming for the couple.

The class were happy to have taken part in a Europe-wide project and to have contributed to coming to terms with the past also in our school – and be it in the form of a small memorial to two people who lived here and whom we let continue to live within us.

About the author: Olivia Girard today teaches at the Prenzlauer Berg Waldorf School, Berlin.

Hedwig Cohn: https://www.stolpersteine-berlin.de/de/biografie/8571

Leo Cohn: https://www.stolpersteine-berlin.de/de/biografie/8567

* Translator’s note: The Europe-wide tripping stone project, initiated by the German artist Gunter Demnig, aims to commemorate the victims of Nazi terror and persecution by placing a tripping stone (German: Stolperstein) with a brass plate bearing their name and life dates at the place where they lived.