Holocaust Center co-founder Martha Cohn dies at 100

Back when Martha Cohn was a mere 86 years old, she took a rare break to describe her unflagging years of volunteer service to Jewish causes.

"You know," she wryly told a Bulletin reporter at the time, "why not tell about what I've done? It's better than reading it in an obituary."

A refugee from Nazi Germany, Cohn went on to live to the impressive age of 100. Up until the last couple of years, the San Francisco resident continued to log hour after hour of work for one of her favorite organizations, the Holocaust Center of Northern California.

Cohn, who died May 24, helped found that center 27 years ago and remained one of its most invaluable human assets.

"This woman was incredibly vibrant, incredibly determined," said Adrian Schrek, the San Francisco center's education director. "She was very passionate and strong-willed, like you wouldn't believe."

Because she was a product of a pre-computer era, Cohn used notecards to organize data systems that were both complete and accurate. "We still have all her cards sitting here, and when we have a problem, we check them," Schrek said.

Back in 1989, the center had a big problem when its computer system crashed after the Loma Prieta earthquake. "We were able to reconstruct it based on her index cards," Schrek said.

Describing Cohn as possessing a "steel-trap mind," Schrek said, "I think that she really believed in the power of education to change people's lives. After what she had been through and saw the horrors of what people could do to one another, she wanted to make a difference."

That was a mark of Cohn's earlier life, too. Her friends recount the story of what happened when Cohn's late husband, Eric, a rabbi, was rounded up by the Nazis after Kristallnacht and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Every day, Cohn appeared in the commanders' offices to demand her husband's release. After a month, they finally consented.

The couple subsequently fled Germany, boarding a ship for Shanghai.

After making arrangements with Japanese occupiers of the city, Cohn set up a soup kitchen and began feeding needy Jewish families. "There were countless people who really owed their lives to her," said Barney Cohen, the Holocaust Center's former archivist and a longtime friend of Cohn's.

After the war, Cohn and her husband moved to California. He was a rabbi in Stockton before the couple settled in San Francisco. Eric Cohn died of a heart attack in 1964. Martha Cohn continued to live in the couple's Geary Boulevard apartment for the remainder of her life.

Coming from the Old Country, Cohn never learned to drive and got around town by walking or taking public transportation. "Her husband was the one who never wanted to drive, so they never got a car," said her niece, Rose Goldkind of San Francisco.

She was such a fixture in her neighborhood that the late state Sen. Milton Marks dubbed her "the Mayor of Geary Boulevard."

Her approach to life was efficient and thorough. According to Schrek, Cohn once went through the local phonebook, culling out all the Jewish-sounding names and writing fund-raising appeals to those individuals for the soon-to-open Holocaust Center.

Cohn also was a past volunteer for the American Friends of Hebrew University, the United Jewish Community Centers and the Jewish National Fund.

Besides all the administrative work she performed, Cohn helped organize the Holocaust Center's library and sometimes translated material written in German.

"There would be weeks when she'd put in 60 to 70 hours," said Max Garcia, a survivor and past president of the center's board.

She developed close ties with local survivors in the community and reached out to them when they fell ill, according to Schrek.

Graveside services were held May 27 at Eternal Home Cemetery in Colma.

In addition to Goldkind, survivors include a sister, Bertha Baruth Goldmeier of New York, a brother, Jacob Baruth of New York, and many nieces and nephews.

Contributions can be made to the Holocaust Center of Northern California, 639 14th St., S.F., CA 94118, or the Jewish National Fund, 6114 LaSalle Ave., No. 356, Oakland, CA 94611-2802.