Palo Alto teacher, activist Eva Miriam Rhee Cohn dies

Eva Miriam Rhee Cohn, an award-winning German teacher who fled the Nazis as a girl, has died after a short battle with cancer. She was 76.

A longtime community leader, Cohn died April 28 in Palo Alto, where she lived. A memorial service at Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City drew 550 people. Cohn was active in the congregation, where her husband, Cantor Hans Cohn, served for 31 years until his retirement.

“She was a powerhouse of a human being,” her husband said this week. “She filled many shoes, remaining active in the community for 35 years.”

A retired teacher, Eva Cohn played a prominent role in nationwide efforts to help high school students meet advanced placement requirements in German and to re-focus foreign language instruction on speaking and listening skills. She was named outstanding educator by the American Association of German Teachers in 1995.

Even after fleeing from the horrors of Germany, where she lived as a young girl during the Nazi reign, Cohn led a delegation of students from Stanford University to Germany in a program called A Bridge to Understanding. The program was designed to help students overcome their hatred and bitterness towards the German people.

“She never forgot her experiences in Nazi Germany,” friend and colleague Carolyn Tucher told attendees at Cohn’s memorial service. “Yet, with amazement, I observed again and again how free Eva was of bitterness.”

Cohn, a popular figure at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, was known for “pedaling onto campus with only her helmet to ward off rain or sun,” Tucher said.

“Eva loved her students and was loved by them and their parents in return,” she added. “Yet, as with all great teachers, it was her example, even more than her lessons, that made the greatest impression on her students and colleagues.”

Cohn’s daughter Becki Cohn-Vargas, describes her mother’s influence on those around her as subtle but strong.

“She was a very humble woman,” said Cohn-Vargas, “not someone who saw herself as a leader. It was my dad who always seemed to be in the limelight — she was the cantor’s wife. But, when you look at her life you know she was an extraordinary woman.”

Cohn-Vargas said her mother always instilled lessons of openness, acceptance and forgiveness within herself and her sisters.

“She taught us to give back to others,” the daughter added. “When my mother lived in Germany, she had a door slammed in her face by her best friend, whose brothers had joined Hitler’s Youth. When they were all grown up, the two reconciled. That’s how forgiving she was.”

Cohn’s influence extended to the community. She was the chair of her synagogue’s Temple Beth Jacob Cares committee, a program built on the vision that nobody should be alone while dying or sick at home or in the hospital.

“Even while she was in the hospital she was negotiating for other people to be visited,” said Cohn-Vargas. “A couple of hours before her death she was still making sure everything was organized to keep the community going.”

In addition to her husband, Cohn she is survived by daughters Becki Cohn-Vargas and husband Rito Vargas of El Sobrante, Ruth Cohn and husband Michael Lewin of San Francisco, and Barbara Liepman and husband Michael of Richmond. She is also survived by grandchildren Priscilla, Melania and David Vargas, and Benjamin, Julia and Allison Liepman.

Arrangements were made by Sinai Memorial Chapel. Contributions may be sent to the Temple Beth Jacob Cares committee at 1550 Alameda de las Pulgas, Redwood City, CA, 94061.

“Eva would not want us to emphasize what we’ve lost with her death,” Tucher said. “She would want us to emphasize what we gained in her life.”

Aleza Goldsmith

Aleza Goldsmith is a former J. staff writer.