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Showing posts with label Romi Cohn. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Romi Cohn. Show all posts

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Romi Cohn Celebrates his 88th Birthday - March 10th

"My biggest, what I was looking for it was the most, was not to stay alive or to die. The fear I should have, the fear from the Germans, I should be able to live without fearing those beasts, you know, these are my biggest dream and my biggest ambition."
— Romi Cohn.
The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation invites everyone to celebrate the birthday of Avrohom “Romi” Cohn, who was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia on March 10th, 1929. He was only ten years old when the Germans invaded his country in 1938. During mass deportations of Jews from Slovakia in 1942, the Nazis granted his family an “economic exception” and they were allowed to stay. However, as the war raged on, they realized that staying in Czechoslovakia had become too dangerous, and Romi was eventually smuggled over the border into Hungary.
        Unable to speak Hungarian, Romi knew that merely opening his mouth exposed him as an illegal refugee. He settled in a small town and enrolled at a local yeshiva, where the headmaster was sympathetic to his plight. He continued his education until 1944. When Hungary formally joined the Axis and began mass deportations of Jews, Romi returned home to Czechoslovakia, this time carrying forged Christian identification papers. 
      Romi became an informal member of the underground and used his connections to help find housing for Jewish refugees and to supply them with false Christian papers. The identity papers he made were very realistic: a connection working at Gestapo headquarters supplied him with German seals to stamp the documents.
      Eventually, Romi was arrested on suspicion of carrying false documents. After a daring escape, he decided to flee to the mountains and join the partisans hiding there. To reach the mountains, Romi forged a German military travel order, sending him to the last German outpost before partisan-controlled territory. “[The Germans] all shook my hand and wished me luck. They thought I was going to go strike a blow for the Reich,” Romi remembers. By the time he joined the partisans, the Germans were already in retreat. His brigade drove them further westward — all the while capturing, interrogating, and executing SS officers.
Romi Cohn at JPEF's
2013 Tribute Dinner
      The Nazis were not the only danger Romi encountered while fighting in the partisan brigade. His captain gave him a false name — Jan Kovic — in order to protect him from the antisemites in his unit. Once Romi noticed one German partisan behaving suspiciously towards him. He was afraid the man would try to kill him if given the opportunity, so he replaced his bullets with rusty ones before target practice one afternoon. The rusty bullet exploded in the man's machine gun, injuring his face. Preoccupied with his facial injury, the man stopped paying attention to Romi.
      When Hungary was liberated, Romi returned to Czechoslovakia. He received a number of medals for his service with the partisans, including the Silver Star of the International Partisans — an honor shared by few others.
      After the war, Romi emigrated to the United States and became a noted mohel (and businessman), performing over 15,000 circumcisions in his career. Were it not for the war, he would have gone to medical school to become a surgeon, he says. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Malvine.
      Romi's autobiography, The Youngest Partisan: A Young Boy Who Fought the Nazis, was published in 2002. Though Romi was originally against the idea, the alarming rise of Holocaust denial around the world gave him the motivation to share his story.“...we have to keep in mind today, we live in a free country and we say, ‘This could never happen here’ which is a tremendous mistake. I come from Czechoslovakia — democracy in Slovakia was even superior to American democracy — total democracy. And if this could happen in a civilized country, overnight...within six months, propaganda turned the population completely - [before] all our best friends, our est neighors, were living in harmony. All of a sudden, they became biggest enemies."
      Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Romi Cohn, including eight videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Partisan Tools for Survival: Hidden Identities

For partisan groups, fighting the powerful and well-equipped German army in open combat was typically not an option. Partisans spent much of their time hiding from the enemy, and discovery of their whereabouts was a major, ever-looming threat. The Nazis used local spies, bribes, aerial surveillance, and forest sweeps to root out partisan groups hiding in the countryside, so the partisan had to constantly be on high alert.

Jewish partisans had to fear for their lives not just because they were fighting against the occupying army but because of their Jewish identity. All partisans1 had to be wary of enemy bullets, lice and typhoid, and of leaving footprints in the fresh snow, but Jewish partisans faced an added threat. For many Jews, their accent, the way they looked or dressed, their unfamiliarity with non-Jewish society, and a myriad of subtle details marked them as "other". This otherness exposed them to mortal danger – and not just from the Nazis and their collaborators, but also from unfriendly members of the Armia Krajowa, antisemitic peasants, and (if they were in a mixed otriad) even their fellow partisans. (For more information on this subject, see our Antisemitism in the Partisans E-Learning course.)

Even a doctor's oath to "do no harm" was no guarantee of safety. After being wounded, Norman Salsitz had to seek treatment from a local doctor – a known antisemite. Norman's anecdote provides a stark illustration of the ever-present danger Jewish partisans found themselves in:

[We] went to the doctor and she said, “I have somebody who was wounded yesterday. He’s from the AK,” if he will look at me. He said yes. She brought me over and he started…he said, “Let down your pants.” So I was afraid that he does it purposely to see if I’m Jewish...I took out a hand grenade and I took out the pin and I said, “If you do something I will let the pin out and we all be killed.”

Identity was treated as a matter of life-and-death – not just by the Nazis, but also by most other groups hostile to the Jews as well, such as the various ultra-right wing nationalist groups in Poland, Ukraine, and the Balkans. Though many Jews lived in their own communities, segregated from the gentile population, they were nonetheless well-known by the locals, and could frequently be singled out by their accents2, names that looked or sounded "Jewish", and appearance.


Norman Salsitz


Sonia Orbuch

Sonia Orbuch was born Sarah Shainwald, but the commander of her otriad made her change her given name to the more common and less Jewish-sounding Russian name Sonia – to keep her safe from antisemites. “Here there are no Sarahs,” he explained to her. To keep himself out of trouble in Moscow, Leon Senders concealed his Jewish identity by simply bleaching his hair with peroxide. Likewise, Ben Kamm excelled at smuggling food through the countryside because of his blue eyes and blond hair.


Ben Kamm


Leon Senders

Fluency in other languages helped many partisans avoid danger - particularly if they could speak without a Yiddish or foreign accent. Running away from his village after the Nazis rounded up all his classmates, 15 year old Joe Kubryk found work as a farmhand with a Ukrainian farmer who never suspected he was Jewish – all because Joe spoke fluent Ukrainian. Growing up in Metz on the northern border of France, Bernard Musmand learned to speak German in school at a young age. Later, while running dangerous missions as a courier for the Sixieme3, he used his fluency in German to dispel suspicions about his identity – usually, with a friendly request for the time or for a match.


Joe Kubryk


Bernard Musmand

Bernard was not only fluent in German – he was also well-versed in Catholicism, another useful instrument of disguise. When his family fled to southern France, he had to pose as a Catholic to attend the local boarding school. He was so diligent at keeping up appearances that the priests actually asked him if he was interested in going into the seminary. Leon IdasLeon Idas, a Greek partisan, grew up attending a private school run by the local Orthodox church. Consequently, he was able to use the religious knowledge he learned there to keep his Jewish identity secret when he joined the partisans.

Though Norman Salsitz was already a partisan, joining the AK was the only way he felt he could strike an effective blow against the Nazis – to do so was the patriotic duty of any able Pole. However, he could not do so without concealing his Jewish identity. He managed to join by assuming the name (and ID card) of another AK soldier. Along with Joseph Greenblatt, Norman is one of the many Jewish partisans who worked for the AK under an assumed Christian name. Norman’s allegiances were tested when a command was given to murder a group of Jews hiding on a farm. He volunteered for the mission – after killing his Polish companions, he rescued the Jews and fled to his original partisan unit. There are many other instances of Jews infiltrating the AK under Christian identities, acquiring rank and status, and using their power to help other Jews escape persecution and death.


Left: photo on Norman's ID card; right: the real Norman Salsitz.

Nazi Germany’s plans for the occupied territories included specific methods for singling out and isolating the Jews, such as the infamous yellow badges. When Frank BlaichmanFrank Blaichman smuggled food through the countryside, his preferred method of disguise was to remove the badge from his clothing and hide it until he returned home. Though it may sound simple in hindsight, such an act was punishable by severe beatings, imprisonment, and even death. He could have easily been found out - travel permits were required for even the most routine trips out of town. Frank had no official documents, but he did have a backup: his fluency in Polish allowed him to talk his way out of trouble if he was ever stopped.

The falsification of identity papers was vital to the underground. Romi Cohn was instrumental in providing Jewish refugees with false documents that identified them as Christians. The forgeries were of a very high quality – a connection at the local Gestapo headquarters supplied him with German seals to stamp the documents. Working at an employment agency in the early 1940s, Eta Wrobel used her clerical skills to forge identity papers for Jews. Even the famed mime Marcel Marceau – himself a Jewish partisan – utilized his drawing skills to make false identity cards for Jewish children.


Eta Wrobel


Romi Cohn

Not surprisingly, a number of Jewish partisans served the cause as spies. Their combined skills – as forgers, as polyglots, as people used to living in a constant state of disguise – put them in a unique position. Even though he was only 15 at the time, Joe Kubryk was trained in the arts of espionage. While Leon Senders was valuable to Moscow as a radio operator, his real art was subterfuge. Leon's knowledge of German, Russian, Polish, and Lithuanian helped him fool his enemies and make new friends. He successfully built up a network of informants he used to acquire sensitive information that was instrumental in bombing the German supply lines. Wearing a tattered shepherd’s coat, Leon was so good at disguising himself he was once kicked out of a farmer’s house because a German officer, who wished to eat lunch there, objected to the presence of “Lithuanian swine” at his meal.

In a war where millions of civilians were murdered for no reason other than their identity – be it ethnic, religious, sexual, or political – the means and the opportunity to conceal and change it often meant the difference between life and death. Even the smallest adjustment could have major consequences: Leon Bakst’s father was a merchant, but when the SS asked for his occupation during the first roundup of the Jews in his hometown of Ivie, he simply answered “brush-maker”. He reasoned that the occupiers would have more use for a brush-maker than a merchant. He was correct: his life was spared that day.


1. Out of the hundreds of thousands of partisans active during the war, only 20,000-30,000 were Jewish.
2. The primary language spoken in Eastern European shtetls was Yiddish, and though not unheard of, unaccented fluency in languages like Polish or Ukrainian was not common.
3. La Sixieme was the underground incarnation of Eclaireurs Israélites, a French Jewish scouting organization. The EI went underground in 1942 and became known as the “Sixth Bureau”, smuggling children and adults into Switzerland, hiding Jews, providing forged documents, and even taking part in battles for the liberation of France.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

New Jewish Partisan Book Out From Scholastic Publishing!

Educators: we are pleased to inform you that Scholastic has recently published a collection of stories entitled We Fought Back: Teen Resisters of the Holocaust. The book is written by Allan Zullo, and is his fourth book about the Holocaust for the teenage audience. The book is aimed at young readers, and gives a true-life narrative account of seven teen-aged partisans fighting the Nazis in World War II.

Each story opens with an attention-grabbing scene of sabotage, ambush, or a bloodied battlefield. The stories are fast-paced and captivating, but their content is always grounded in the actual experience of partisans, allowing students to see how life was like for teens of similar age in the most dire of situations.

Of the seven stories in the book, five are about partisans profiled on the JPEF partisan pages. These include Frank Blaichman, Sonia Orbuch (known in the book as Sarah Shainwald), Martin Petrasek (in the book as Martin Friedman), Shalom Yoran (in the book as Selim Sznycer), and Romi Cohn. At least one more will join them in the coming weeks as we finalize four new partisan biographies with accompanying photos and video interview clips.

The book provides a great opportunity for middle and high school teachers to supplement their history and English classes. As the book gives an account of a lesser-known aspect of the Jewish experience during the war, it is an obvious complement to the study of the Holocaust in schools. In addition to offering first-hand accounts of the war experience, the book supports curriculum aimed at exploring Jewish identity, leadership, and resistance.

In English courses, the book’s dramatized versions of the partisan fighters’ true stories provide a counterbalance to reading lists traditionally centered around fiction. Often we find non-fiction underutilized in the English classroom and yet it accounts for much of adult reading. This is an opportunity to engage students with narrative in an alternative way, potentially appealing to reluctant readers – or simply enriching the reading experience for all students.

The age of the protagonists in these stories makes it easy for students to identify with them, and the narrative of survival and resistance to oppression is powerful and compelling, especially for that age group. In these ways and more, We Fought Back can be a great resource for any classroom.

— Written by Chelsea Martin.