Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” and “Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”
By Roger Cohen
Knopf. 304 pp. $27.95
‘Jews learn selectively from the past,” writes Roger Cohen, “just like everybody else.” But how (and whom) does one select or forget? We build stories from our memories to cope with the ghosts that haunt us or to avoid them. As a distinguished reporter and columnist, Cohen has spent a lifetime chronicling the myriad modes in which the past insinuates itself into the present. From Paris to New York, from Sarajevo to Johannesburg, he has written about lives torn apart by war or oppression, about the desire for peace and the longing for freedom. In “The Girl From Human Street,” he turns to the history of his own family’s diaspora, from Eastern Europe to South Africa, to London, to Israel and to the United States. In this often beautifully crafted volume, he reveals how the threads of this legacy of displacement are woven together, all the while making visible tears in the fabric never to be fully mended.
Cohen was born in London a decade after World War II, and the shadows of that conflict fall across all the pages in his book. His parents were recent immigrants from South Africa, the land to which their own parents had fled in the face of increasing hostility to Jews.
Cohen returns to Eastern Europe to find traces of his family. His grandparents were lucky to have left Lithuania before the worst conflicts engulfed the region. In the late 19th century, more than 5,000 Jews inhabited the parents’ native village; the lone remaining Jew in town died just a short time before the author visited a few years ago.
South Africa was good to the Cohen clan, as it was to many Jews fleeing oppression in 20th-century Europe. Successful in commerce and the professions, the Cohens quickly amassed wealth and status. Their achievements were many, but they recognized that as Jews they would have to respect boundaries setting them apart from Christian elites. They also recognized that the severe oppression of blacks was “a form of protection” for them. As Cohen puts it, “If you are busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks, you do not have much left over for tens of thousands of Jews.”
Cohen’s account jumps from continent to continent, from the late 19th century to the present. He is fascinated by the lives of transplants, of people who are willing to start over again, with new languages, customs and (often wary) neighbors. His uncle Bert wrote of “the magnificent stigma” of being a Jew, but in Cohen’s immediate family the only “deity was academic and professional achievement.”
Transplants thrive in fresh soil by assimilating into their new environment. They often lose their original nature, or at least they try to. Cohen tracks down a Holocaust survivor from his family’s Lithuanian village. George Gordimer built a life of success and stability in suburban New Jersey until panic attacks intruded in middle age. When he was just 5 years old, to avoid a Nazi roundup aimed at eliminating all Jewish children in his village, George was hidden in a barrel. “I’m still not out of there,” he tells Cohen a half-century later. “I’m still in the barrel.”
Cohen’s best pages are reflections on those who never fully emerge from the shadows of the past, from the places they were hidden. The “girl” in Cohen’s title, and the heart of this book, is the author’s mother, June. The memoir is an effort to come to terms with her life and her suffering. “June Cohen was a woman hollowed out like a tree struck by lightening. She had been blighted. I wanted to know why.” Like some other members of the extended family, June suffered from mental illness. At times this took the form of deep depression, and at others what we would now call bipolar disorder. She was treated with insulin and with electric shock, but not with much talk therapy. Nothing worked for very long, and she attempted suicide at least twice. Silence covered all this pain. As a child, Roger experienced his mother’s absences from the family as traumatic abandonment, and only much later did he begin to apprehend her deep and abiding suffering.
Cohen also describes a branch of his maternal family who settled in Israel. “My family story, like that of millions of other Jews,” he writes, “leads inexorably to Zionism.” His commitment to Israel, however, doesn’t inhibit him from charging that its current policies have placed it “in a morally indefensible noose” of endlessly oppressive occupation. Only when Israelis and Palestinians realize that neither can win, he writes, will there be the possibility of a “victory of coexistence.” This is a lesson he draws from his South African roots and a deep repugnance for “the inebriation of domination.”
Cohen’s Israeli cousin Renata wrestled with the political and military tensions of her country, but it was her struggle with mental illness that eventually led her to take her own life. Afterward, her brother turned to religion to find the psychological borders that brought him a sense of meaning, a sense of peace. Cohen has deep respect for this religious turn, but for himself the “way back to mindfulness and wholeness has been writing down the world as I see it.” He recognizes his storytelling as a way of coping with his mother’s distant suffering, a pain that was at once clouded and intensified by familial silence.
A man who has assimilated very well, Cohen knows the pleasures and also the loneliness of diaspora. In writing his stirring memoir, in constructing a past with which he can live, he wrestled with demons both historical and personal. “To forget was to fall,” he writes. “To remember was the duty of the Jew.” Also the duty of the writer. And the son.