Herbert Kohn experienced the Holocaust in Germany when he was a child, and on Friday he told C.W. Davis Middle School students what happened when he was their age.
“Jews were nothing. That was the propaganda then,” he said. “They were like a bad bug. You stomp it. People believed that, but how did the German people and the world allow that to happen?”
Kohn, who was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1926, explained to a packed theater of sixth-graders what it meant to live during a time they’ve only read about in textbooks.
He recalled the complete change in his life just a few weeks after Adolf Hitler took power. He was no longer allowed to attend public school. His best friends made fun of him and called him a “dirty Jew.” His father was fired from work, and his neighbors refused to talk to his mother.
“This happened because of the German mindset back then of absolute obedience to government, parents and teachers,” he said. “The absolute part there is where it can go wrong.”
Kohn is one of about 20 Holocaust survivors who volunteer with the William Breman Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum in Atlanta. He travels to universities, schools and organizations across the state to tell his story. Brian Hatrick, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Davis, invited Kohn to speak to the students.
“I want you to remember that America is the greatest country in the world. America gives you the opportunity to reach your potential,” Kohn said. “I’ve worked three different careers here. Nowhere else in the world can you do that. Study and learn as much as you can, and you’ll have that opportunity.”
Kohn talked about recent travels to his hometown in Germany and how he has now eliminated the words “hate,” “revenge” and “retaliation” from his vocabulary — words that were in his brain when he joined the U.S. Army in 1945 to fight against the Nazis in Germany.
“Two days after we got there, the war was over. Everyone celebrated, and I cried because I couldn’t fight back,” he said. “But now, everything has changed. I saw the young people were different. They’re not Nazis anymore, and they’re seeking to heal the guilt of their grandparents.”
Kohn described the four phases of the Holocaust that occurred between 1933 and 1945 — discrimination, segregation, persecution and extermination. Although he lived through the first three, he was able to escape the concentration camps when relatives in Birmingham, Ala., agreed to sponsor visas for his family.
“But I was there for Kristallnacht on Nov. 9, 1938,” Kohn said. “Every house of worship was burned and destroyed. Every store owned by a Jew was ransacked and looted. I remember glass everywhere. And all males between 16 and 60 were arrested.”
Kohn said his father Leo, who was 38, was arrested and tortured. He returned three weeks later.
“He lost 30 pounds and his hair was white. He hugged us and said that although he was told not to say a word about what happened, he had to talk,” Kohn said. “And then he talked all night.”
His father described the torture and abuse. Soldiers released him when they found a paper in his wallet that honored him for serving during World War I.
“Under their twisted sense of ethics, they couldn’t hold him any longer, when it was honored by Hitler himself,” Kohn said, holding up the faded and crinkled piece of paper. Students leaned forward on their chairs to see. “This paper saved my father’s life.”
Kohn described concentration camps around Germany and explained how his grandfather was squashed to death on a cattle car that was used to transport Jewish citizens to the camps.
“The remaining museums are proof. People say the Holocaust didn’t happen, but people who lived nearby smelled the flesh burning. They didn’t take a stand, but you will,” he said. “It shall never happen again. It shall never happen again.”