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Richard Cohen

. . . and for Freedom

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page A43

It happened like this: The PR firm for Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust center, e-mailed me a press release about its new database, which contains the names of some 3 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. The e-mail included the URL for the site, www.yadvashem.org, so I clicked on that and then on "Search" and before I knew it I was in Poland, in the town of Ostrow Mazowiecka, which is where my father's family is from. I scanned the list of Kohns and Koens and Cohens and Kohens -- Elijau and Israel and Frieda and Ester and Gitel -- and it was 1939 or '40 or maybe later, and all of them were rousted from their homes and marched out of town and murdered on the road to Warsaw, which is the way I was told it happened when I visited the town years ago.

I clicked on this name and that one, reading the brief, sad bios: "Elijau Kohen was born in Ostrow Mazowiecka, Poland to Yitzhak . . ." He was a carpenter, and he married Ester and he was only 28 when he was murdered. That is all it says, really, but you can close your eyes and imagine him, strong and handsome, and Ester, beautiful with her dark eyes and hair, and how they loved one another and had one child, maybe two, and relatives in America where they were planning to go -- someday, somehow.

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It is an odd coincidence, but when I came back from Poland in 1977, it was this time of year -- and I went almost immediately to Thanksgiving dinner at my cousin's house. I had lots to report -- what the town looked like and what I had learned about my great-grandfather, Mendel, and his father, Judka, and his father, Shulem, and then Judka again. I had traced my ancestry back to around 1750, when the first of the Koens arrived in Ostrow Mazowiecka, and I noted that they -- which is to say we -- had lived in Poland far longer than we had in America, and yet it all was gone, exterminated, vanished. I felt nothing for Poland. I felt everything for America.

In the official records, kept in the library and an archival center, it seemed that all the Koens and Kohns, the Cohens of any spelling and transliteration, were family -- my family. You only had to trace the branch long enough and you came back to the same tree. Mendel, my great-grandfather, was the father of 13, sons and daughters gone hither and yon, some to New York and Detroit and one to the czar's navy. They were a fecund bunch, prosperous for a while, until a recession hit and then the Germans marched in and wiped out the Cohens of Ostrow Mazowiecka.

That Thanksgiving I had reported, too, on the much larger Polish town where my mother was born, Ostroleka, and which on the Yad Vashem site has page after page -- more than 60 -- of victims. Here, too, I had visited in person and then again the other day via the Internet. Here, too, I sought out names, clicking the dead to life and imagining how they were marched to the cemetery, which was surrounded by a high wall and landscaped with trees, and forced to topple the headstones. Then they were taken to the forest, where they were shot.

That was a special Thanksgiving for me. It was great to be back from the gloomy forest and the still-toppled headstones and the darkness of Northern Europe this time of year. We were in America, which is sunny on even the most dismal day. Thanksgiving is the sweetest American holiday. There's nothing boastful about it or proud or bombastic, and it has not yet been corrupted by merchandisers. It is a day for a special kind of humility. I stand in awe of America. I think most of us do.

"We dig a grave in the breezes," Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor, wrote in his poem "Death Fugue." Now, somehow, the grave is also in the ether of the Internet, an interment of 3 million names -- a second 3 million to follow -- and I can search it from America where, for the holiday, I join my mother, who was born in Ostroleka almost 94 years ago, and be thankful that my grandparents sailed to America -- latter-day Pilgrims, running, as it turned out, for their very lives.

Happy Thanksgiving.

cohenr@washpost.com


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