Memorial stolperstiene, or "stumbling blocks," are laid in front of a formerly Jewish home in Görlitz. (Photo/Courtesy Lauren Leiderman)
Memorial stolperstiene, or "stumbling blocks," are laid in front of a formerly Jewish home in Görlitz. (Photo/Courtesy Lauren Leiderman)

Return to Görlitz: survivors’ descendants lay memorial stones in Germany

When Fred Cohn left Görlitz, Germany, he wasn’t Fred Cohn. The San Mateo resident, now 88, had a different name, a different nationality and even a different family back in 1939, when at age 6 he fled with his parents from the small eastern German town to escape the Nazis.

In November, Cohn’s grown children returned to the town of his birth to commemorate him. They were joined by other children and grandchildren of Görlitz Jews, all of whom had their own family stories to tell. Renee Cohn Hawk, Fred Cohn’s daughter, said the emotional trip changed how she felt about her family’s history.

“The trip, and other people’s stories, made me have a little bit more understanding of the threat and fear that they experienced,” she said.

Hawk and her brother Gregg were part of a group that traveled to Görlitz for several days of reminiscence and commemoration with other descendants of the tight-knit Jewish community, which was wiped out during the Third Reich. They gathered to share memories, tour the town and witness the laying of engraved brass cobblestones known as “stolpersteine,” or stumbling stones. More than 75,000 have been set in sidewalks in front of homes across Europe to remember the Jews who once lived there.

“Something that binds our families in the Görlitz group is that we’re all descendants of people who managed to get out,” said Dan Peri of Mountain View, who was part of the group of a dozen or so participants. “And pretty much I think all of us have family members that got left behind.”

Fred Cohn was born Fery Slotowski in 1933, the child of a Polish father and Hungarian mother. Fearing the Nazis, his family escaped from Görlitz, which is on the border with Poland. Most of the Jewish community was doing the same. In 1925, as many as 600 Jews lived in the town of 86,000. By 1939, only 130 remained.

Fery Slotowski AKA Fred Cohn in Shanghai
Fery Slotowski AKA Fred Cohn in Shanghai (Photo/Courtesy Fred Cohn)

Cohn’s family first went to Danzig, then to Budapest. With war dogging their heels, they did what many other Jews did and took a ship headed for Shanghai, one of the few places in the world that would take in Jews without a visa.

But escaping the Nazis didn’t mean a happy ending for the Slotowskis.

“Conditions were very poor,” said Cohn about his early years in the Shanghai ghetto, which was under the control of the Japanese. His parents caught typhus not long after they arrived and were taken to the hospital. That left Fred alone with his baby sister.

“At 6 years old, how did you know what to do with a baby?” Hawk remembers asking her father. “And he said, ‘I just did what I saw my mother do.’”

The young boy spent several days alone, feeding and changing the infant and holding her when she cried, before they were found by a German Jewish couple, the Cohns.

“Unfortunately, both his parents died in the hospital, not too far apart,” said his wife, Miriam Perlson-Cohn. “Fred was 7 years old, his sister was under a year old.”

A doctor adopted the baby, and the Cohns adopted Fred, who was sent to school and had a bar mitzvah in Shanghai. All in all, Fred Cohn spent 10 years there.

“I do speak Chinese,” he said. “A little. But I only speak the Shanghai dialect.”

Fred Cohen (seated) with his family in 2021.
Fred Cohn (seated) and family, including his wife Miriam Perlson-Cohn and children. His daughter Renee Cohn Hawk and son Gregg Cohn both traveled to Gorlitz. (Photo/Stanley Kim)

The Cohns came to San Francisco when Fred was 17, joining a close group of Shanghailanders in the Bay Area. Details of his past were largely unknown to Hawk until she started studying history in elementary school.

“When I went home and asked my dad about his childhood, that was the first time I realized that my dad had experienced what I was learning in school,” she said. “I was learning about the Holocaust in school and found out that my dad experienced it firsthand.”

Many of the stories she knows about Görlitz are from Fred Cohn’s older brother Tibor. Born in 1928, he was sent on a Kindertransport to the UK. But Fred also told his daughter some stories of his own — like how his blond hair and blue eyes were an asset when the family went out for food in Germany.

“One time the Gestapo stopped them and accused my grandmother of being Jewish,” Hawk said. “And she motioned to her son and said, ‘How could I be Jewish with a son that looks like this?’”

These were the stories that made Hawk want to see Görlitz for herself. While no trace of her family remained there, she would be able to leave their mark on the city, via the stolpersteine. She was able to watch as stolpersteine were laid in front of the house that her father had lived in. A small crowd of around 50 gathered, she recalled, and she asked how many lived in Görlitz.

“Maybe 10 people at least had the courage to raise their hand to show that they were from the town,” she said. “And it was touching to me that anyone who lived there was coming out in the drizzly cold to watch some strangers get honored.”

The fact that Hawk and her brother could be there at all — Fred Cohn was too old to make the trip — was due to Görlitz resident Lauren Leiderman.

Lauren Leiderman leading visiting descendants of survivors on a tour about the Jewish history of Görlitz.
Lauren Leiderman leading visiting descendants of survivors on a tour about the Jewish history of Görlitz. (Photo/Renee Cohn Hawk)

Leiderman is neither German nor Jewish by birth, but she has become an expert on the town’s Jewish history. She considers herself part of a Jewish family (her husband is Israeli and she is American and raising her kids Jewishly), speaks German and has volunteered at Jewish heritage sites in Dresden. And, luckily for the descendants of Görlitz Jews, she possessed curiosity, determination and time during the pandemic shutdown. She started to research Görlitz, wanting to know more about the Jews who had lived there and what happened to them.

“These questions were bugging me, so I tried to find answers,” she said.

Combing through museum and ancestry sites, she began to compile names.

“Who were they, and most importantly for me, could I find any descendants?” she said. “Did these people have children or grandchildren?”

Through a combination of diligent internet sleuthing and her translation of a child’s book of autographs, poems and personal notes collected by a young girl from the town, Leiderman had a list of family names of Jews who had lived in Görlitz. She began to try and find their children and grandchildren, scattered across the globe, and once she started getting results, she set up regular Zoom meetups for them, including Cohn and his wife, Hawk and her brother, and Dan Peri.

This newly formed community of Görlitz Jewish descendants flourished online, sharing photos and documents. People began to recognize their relatives and were able to paint a fuller picture of the vibrant middle-class community. One descendant in Norway, whose father left Görlitz at 6 with his parents before making it to pre-state Israel, had a nice surprise for Peri.

“He actually found a photograph of my great-grandmother at a swim club, that was probably a Jewish swim club, from the 1930s,” Peri said.

Another happy event occurred recently when pieces of the Torah from the Görlitz synagogue were returned to the town by a Protestant minister, whose father, a policeman, held on to them for 83 years. They disappeared after Kristallnacht and much of the story is unclear. According to Miriam Cohn, the Görlitz descendants want the town to give the fragments to a museum or synagogue in Dresden, where there is a larger Jewish community.

Leiderman, who had been in the process of arranging for stolpersteine to honor the Jews of Görlitz, was able to convince the State Department to spring for the money to bring the families to Germany, and she planned events, tours and talks around their visit. Maneuvering through city regulations and an ongoing pandemic was tricky, but she pulled it off.

Four newly laid stolpersteine for Fred Cohn and his parents and brother.
Four newly laid stolpersteine for Fred Cohn and his parents and brother. (Photo/Renee Cohn Hawk)

“It’s really miraculous that everything worked out,” she said. “I’m still kind of shaking my head.”

Although Peri had been to Görlitz before with his father, he decided to join the trip in November.

“They have a lot of local people who participated in this project who are really trying to face history in an honest way,” he said. “It’s just very powerful.”

Peri’s father was born near Görlitz and spent his childhood there. Peri’s grandfather, a judge, got early wind of the persecution that was coming and, after a five-year struggle to obtain papers, the family managed to reach British Mandate Palestine. Peri, who grew up in the U.S., remembers hearing his grandmother’s stories about her hometown and the family business that collapsed under the Nazi regime.

Peri said visiting with the other children of Görlitz Jews made the experience “once in a lifetime.”

“The people I was with, it definitely felt like extended family,” he said.

Even after the visit, the connection between the children and grandchildren of the Jewish Görlitzers is thriving, with a lively WhatsApp group.

“Somebody just said, ‘Hey, let’s do a cookbook,’” said Hawk. “And someone else said, ‘I have recipes, but I can’t read them.’ And then another person said, ‘Well, I used to translate, so send me an image of those recipes and I can read them and translate them.’”

That sense of collaboration and connection is the beauty of this reunion among strangers who became family, Peri said. Even if the Jewish world of Görlitz no longer exists, something new and special has sprung up from its ruins.

“Essentially,” he said, “the descendants of refugees managed to cobble together a little bit of that community that existed before it was broken apart.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.