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Benefield: Rohnert Park woman travels to Germany to pay tribute to family displaced by Nazi regime

Renee Hawk had traveled to Germany with her father when she was a teenager.

The Berlin Wall was still standing, so her father, Fred Cohn, pointed far beyond it, to the southeast, to indicate to his son and daughter where he grew up.

It was hard to picture, Hawk said.

But in November it became real.

Hawk, who lives in Rohnert Park, and her brother, Gregg Cohn of Mountain View, traveled to the city beyond the wall where their father was born.

They went to pay tribute, to their dad, their uncle and their grandparents. And to other survivors of Nazi terror in Germany.

“I have just been in awe of my family history,” Hawk said. “I was probably in junior high when I learned that what I was studying in school was what my dad lived through. He wasn’t one of those parents who said ‘I walked through two miles of snow…’”

Fred Cohn — his name was Fery Slotowski then — was 2 years old, living on the second floor of an apartment building in Görlitz on the German side of the border with Poland when the family was forced from their home, and eventually their country, by the Nazis.

Hawk wanted to honor that spot.

She and her brother traveled with a small group of fellow descendants of Görlitz Jews to lay Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, in honor of family members who were forced from their homes by terror.

The Stolpersteine project, now decades old, is meant to remind residents and passersby of what happened in the lead up to, and during, World War II.

Stolpersteine are named after the phrase for “stumbling stones” but they are not stone. They are brass, engraved typically with the same introductory line: “Hier wohnte,” or “Here lived...”

They are installed in the ground in front of the last known residence of those murdered, deported or displaced by the Nazi regime.

“I think that several of the descendants felt that they were teaching people, that their presence was to raise awareness,” she said or the organized trip. “For me it was more personal. It was my wanting to see where my dad lived, honor my dad and my uncle and my grandparents.”

“I wanted to see that city from which they fled,” she said. “I wanted to be there to represent our family.”

In all, 15 brass markers were laid in the streets of Görlitz and a neighboring town in November. Four were for Hawk’s family.

“For my dad it said in German, ‘Fled to Shanghai,’ and the year they went to Shanghai,” she said.

It was the start of an early life in which Cohn, who turned 89 this month, was separated first from his older brother Tibor, who was sent to England in the Kindertransport program. And then from his parents, both of whom died of typhus shortly after arriving in Shanghai.

The boy, only 7 when his parents died, was adopted by a German Jewish family and renamed Cohn. His infant sister was adopted by a different family. They have little contact with each other.

Decades later, the Stolpersteine project has not been without controversy.

Some see it as disrespectful to trod on the names of victims.

Others say it’s a misguided reminder of when Jewish cemeteries and tombstones were desecrated and made into cobblestones for streets.

Hawk said she felt some uneasiness at times during her trip. It was a sense that some locals didn’t want this contingent of survivors there, didn’t want the memorials.

But over the course of the week, some locals did come to listen and pay respect.

Strangers came together to remember Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass — a terror-filled two days in 1938 when a wave of violence against Jews destroyed thousands of Jewish homes, synagogues and businesses in Germany.

Much of what was said on that candlelit walk of remembrance was in German, so Hawk couldn’t understand it. But she could feel it.

“It was hundreds of people walking through the streets in this 40-degree weather. No snow, but it was cold,” she said. “To look around and see all these candles and all the people in the evening, in the dark, to remember the Night of Broken Glass when everything for Jews changed...”

The walk culminated at a synagogue where Hawk and others were invited to place their candle upright in the sand, the flame still alight.

“I felt so supported by the people,” she said.

Backers of the Stolpersteine project say it’s more than thought-provoking. They say it humanizes victims. Makes them individuals, people who lived here.

Apartment buildings, houses, places of business. These are the places people were forced to flee, but also the places where people lived, worked and raised families.

In November, Hawk stood in front of the building where her father was born nearly nine decades ago.

After his family fled, Fred Cohn spent most of his youth in Shanghai before coming to San Francisco at 17.

When his own young family was growing, Fred Cohn didn’t speak much of what he went through, Hawk said.

So for Hawk and her brother to travel to the place of their father’s birth stirred emotions for her. Two months later, it continues.

“I am sort of the family story keeper,” she said. “I never thought of myself as that until this experience.”

That has become especially important now, as her father ages and loses some of his memories, she said. “It’s an honor to keep the stories.”

“It’s kind of natural for me because I think it’s fascinating. I think it’s amazing how he survived and the horrors and the trials he went through,” she said. “I don't really feel this as a burden.”

Hawk said she feels it was important that she and her brother were there when the Stolpersteine were laid for members of their family. But she has no plans, as of now, to go back.

“I am at peace with where it is right now,” she said.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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