Walch on Cohn and Conrads, 'No Justice in Germany: The Breslau Diaries, 1933-1941'

Willy Cohn, Norbert Conrads, ed.
Teresa Walch

Willy Cohn, Norbert Conrads, ed. No Justice in Germany: The Breslau Diaries, 1933-1941. Trans. Kenneth Kronenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. 440 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-7324-9.

Reviewed by Teresa Walch (University of California San Diego) Published on H-German (October, 2014) Commissioned by Chad Ross

Willy Cohn’s Diaries: An Account of Jewish Life in Breslau, 1933-1941

Willy Cohn was a complex individual. He was born into a Jewish family in Breslau in 1888 and developed strong ties to his German homeland. Cohn fought in World War I, earned the Iron Cross, and saw nothing contradictory about his multiple identities as a devout Jew, a socialist, a German patriot, and a passionate Zionist. He was a doting father, a rigorous scholar, and a committed diarist. After the Nazis assumed power in 1933, Cohn increasingly wrote about the deteriorating situation for German Jews and determined to record his experiences for future generations. Readers of Cohn's diaries are continually struck by his astute observations and uncanny foresight. His story cautions against making generalizations about individuals in this time period and gives readers insight into the complex life of a Jewish man in Breslau from 1933 to 1941, as he came to terms with the fact that the country he knew and loved no longer tolerated his presence in it.

Readers first encounter Cohn on January 30, 1933, the day Hitler came to power. He concluded this first entry by writing: "Troubled times in any case, especially for us Jews. We're sitting in a mouse trap" (p. 1). Like most on the left, however, Cohn had faith in a quick response and an ultimate Communist victory. He could not have predicted the violent takeover as Nazis arrested and tortured thousands of Communists and Social Democrats and locked them up in prisons, concentration camps, and makeshift cells across the country. They succeeded in quickly suppressing or coordinating virtually all opposition.

Cohn's diary documents the fate of Jews in Breslau throughout the next eight years. Recognizing mounting persecutions, Cohn wrote in August 1935, "From now on, I plan to record our Jewish fate more intently; perhaps it will be of interest to later generations" (p. 79). He noted when children were banned from attending public schools and commented on the Nuremberg Laws, the Aryanization of businesses, and on anti-Jewish rhetoric from Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and Hitler. He lamented the increasing restrictions placed on Jewish life in Breslau as Jews were released from their jobs, banned from restaurants and other public spaces, and were required to turn over their radios and all valuables. Reflecting on the changes, Cohn commented: "We Jews get a very strange feeling whenever we walk out in the open these days. On the one hand, this is the land in which we were born, whose development we have pursued over the decades; on the other, we have been excluded from it and been made alien. We are completely isolated" (p. 63). Cohn began to feel like a foreigner in his own homeland.

For Cohn, it had never been problematic to be both a German and a Jew, and it is his fervent commitment to both Germany and to Judaism that makes his diaries so fascinating. These dual loyalties create palpable tensions throughout his writings as Cohn realized that others--both Nazis and fellow Jews--found these identities incompatible. As a Zionist, he truly believed the future of Jewish people resided in Palestine, and he supported the development of a Jewish state. His son Ernst made aliyah after completing his Abitur, and Cohn and his wife Trudi visited him in 1937. During their visit, Cohn felt deeply connected to life in Palestine and began seriously considering emigration. This commitment to fostering Jewish nationalism and creating a Jewish nation-state led Cohn to accept the legitimacy of similar endeavors, and he therefore empathized with Hitler's desire to obtain more living space for Germans in the East.

Further, as a German patriot, he stated that his love for Germany "cannot be shaken by the unpleasantries that we are now experiencing. It is the country whose language we speak and whose good days we have also experienced! We have to be loyal enough to submit even to a government that comes from an entirely different camp" (p. 21). He continually expressed awe for Hitler, recognizing "the greatness of this man, who has given the world a new look" (p. 281). While he strongly identified as a German, Cohn was at the same time extremely critical of Reform Jews who attempted to completely assimilate into German life. Although German and Jewish identities were not incompatible, for Cohn they could also never be interchangeable.

In addition to his loyalty to Germany, Cohn's training as an historian incited him to remain objective when analyzing contemporary developments. Cohn began studying history in 1906 and wished to be a professional historian. Unfortunately, he was spurned by the University of Breslau faculty, but this rejection did not prevent him from widely publishing on Jewish life in the Middle Ages. To support his family, Cohn became a teacher and taught at the Johannes Gymnasium from 1919 until he was dismissed in June 1933. From then on he made a living giving lectures and completing scholarly works on commission. He also spent many days working in Breslau's Community Archive and the Cathedral Library. His historian's perspective and knowledge of Jewish history led him to continually draw connections between contemporary and past events. For example, he wrote: "I keep asking myself, though, why this happens to us over and over again because, as a historian, I cannot simply look to the latest instance. I must think about the deeper causes, and conclude that we are also at fault! But I do not think we can get any distance on the matter while we are still in the throes of the events themselves" (p. 190). Readers can sense Cohn's sense of alarm as he attempted to determine the cause of Jewish plight in Nazi Germany. In these tumultuous times, Cohn maintained a sense of normality by burying himself in his scholarly work, and he increasingly sought strength, comfort, and solace in his faith.

Cohn's hopes and plans for emigration to Palestine were quashed in June 1940 when it was announced that all further Jewish emigration was prohibited. Cohn had increasingly believed he was unfit to make the journey in any case. He did not think he could handle the difficult life on a kibbutz and began to encourage Trudi to emigrate alone with their two youngest daughters. In 1940 and 1941, the tone of Cohn's diary entries become ever more pessimistic and apocalyptic as he commented on the fate of Jews in Poland, the T-4 program, and Babi Yar. Amidst the circulating rumors, he struggled to decipher fact from fiction but soon became convinced that "[t]otal war is being waged against us; we will suffer heavy casualties" (p. 295). Although exhausted and believing his life was at its end, he remained dedicated to his young children and determined to record events for posterity. He continued working in the archive, and when deportations from Breslau began, Cohn made final arrangements to preserve his memoirs and diaries. On November 21, 1941, Cohn, Trudi, and their two youngest daughters were required to report to the Odertor railway station along with one thousand other Breslau Jews. When all of their possessions had been recorded, they were transported to Kaunas, where SS-men and Lithuanians executed them in a mass shooting on November 29.

Cohn's complex story is a stark reminder that he was one of millions and that each and every victim had an equally unique story. It is essential that we bear this in mind, for Cohn's complicated relationship with Germany cautions against drawing simple and generic conclusions about people and their thoughts and loyalties during this time period. We must instead strive for more nuanced understandings.

Norbert Conrads has previously published German editions of Cohn's memoirs and diaries, but in this edition, he and translator Kenneth Kronenberg bring Cohn's story to an English-speaking audience for the first time.[1] Conrads includes an introduction with helpful biographical and historical background information, and readers will be delighted by his approximately five hundred footnotes that guide them throughout the diary. Chapter headings, though at first seemingly odd for a diary, allow readers to quickly and easily orient themselves in the four hundred pages of text.

In condensing Cohn's fifty-nine diary books from 1933 to 1941 down to four hundred printed pages, Conrads had to be selective about what he chose to include. He clearly explains his methodology of selection, stating that he tried to include everything historically relevant and crucial to understanding Jewish life in Breslau during the Third Reich. Some may argue, however, that some of Cohn's reflections on everyday life that were omitted are just as essential to garner a more complete understanding of Cohn's experiences. Scholars may also regret the missing brackets and ellipses, indicating where omissions were made, but their exclusion certainly makes the text more readable.

It is rare that such perceptive and comprehensive accounts of this time period survive, and Conrads and Kronenberg help fulfill Cohn's desire to inform future generations about his experiences. Similar to Victor Klemperer's diary, Cohn's detailed account describes what it was like to be a Jew living in the Third Reich.[2] This book should certainly appeal to historians and graduate students, and it would greatly augment any undergraduate course on Nazi Germany. The condensed diaries and helpful background information should also certainly encourage a wider readership and general audience.


[1]. See Willy Cohn, Verwehte Spuren: Erinnerungen an das Breslauer Judentum vor seinem Untergang, ed. Norbert Conrads (Cologne: Böhlau, 1995); Willy Cohn, Kein Recht, nirgends: Tagebuch vom Untergang des Breslauer Judentums, 1933-1941, 2 vols., ed. Norbert Conrads (Cologne: Böhlau, 2006). Cohn's memoir covers his life until 1933, which is when the published diaries then resume Cohn's story.

[2]. See Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, 2 vols., trans. Martin Chalmers (New York: Random House, 1998). For an additional account of Jewish life in Breslau, see Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Inherit the Truth: A Memoir of Survival and the Holocaust (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2000). Anita was a friend of Cohn's daughter Ruth, and he mentions her several times in his diaries.


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Citation: Teresa Walch. Review of Cohn, Willy; Conrads, Norbert, ed., No Justice in Germany: The Breslau Diaries, 1933-1941. H-German, H-Net Reviews. October, 2014. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=40529

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