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On Friday, November 23rd, I drove from my house in West Windsor, New Jersey, to the suburban retirement community, the Village Grande, seven minutes away. My brother, Ari, accompanied me, bringing along two sets of challah and grape juice. One of the two pairs was for our regular synagogue attendee, Norman, who had offered to introduce me to his neighbor of sixteen years, Emil. The other was for the subject of our interview that day: Emil Cohen.
We were greeted at the door by Emil’s wife, Diana, who welcomed us and led us to the living room to meet her husband. Emil was a well-built elderly man seated on the couch, leaning on his cane. He sports a shock of white hair and a set of black glasses. His eyes beneath the shades are a milky hue, red-rimmed but always wide open.
He spoke in dramatic tones, pausing every so often for emphasis. His voice was that of a natural storyteller, slowing by the climaxes of each of his tales. He was eager to share and open to questions. His story might not be the easiest to read, but it’s more than worth it. This is how Emil survived the Holocaust.
Life Before the War
He was born Emmanuel “Emil” Cohen in Zwolle, the Netherlands. He grew up in Amsterdam before World War II broke out. Both of his parents were Jewish by birth, but grew up completely non-religious. Emil’s household growing up wasn’t a religious one, but his mother did keep a kosher kitchen. His father ran a photo engraving business; his mother was a diamond cutter like Emil’s grandfather. His memories of life before the war are limited. For him, the trauma of the Holocaust began at just age five.
Emil remembers sporadic but distinct memories from the years between July 1942 and May 1945. He recalls being in a stranger’s home on the night of his parents’ wedding anniversary, July 14th. He was in the corner of a room in the house, in a makeshift crib. There were some people sitting around a table, smoking. He asked where his parents were, and he was told that they were dead. He would be told the same about his sister, just two years his senior. He would discover later that his father was a member of the Dutch Underground, one of the few Jews allowed into the operation, and was told to put his family into hiding that very night. His parents had tried to convince Emil’s grandparents to go into hiding as well, but they refused. They were subsequently taken to concentration camps, his father’s parents to Auschwitz and his mother’s parents to Bergen-Belsen.
That first night of the dreadful next three years of his life, Emil was told that his name henceforth would be Bobby Jansen. He believes that some sort of psychiatric procedures were performed on him because he went on to forget all memories of his father, mother, and sister. His life before the war was a blur. Now he was simply Bobby; there was no more Emmanuel. He does recall that in every place he went, he noticed a blonde woman, checking up on him. At this point in the story, Emil had to pause as he began to choke up.
“She was my mother,” he said shakingly, but he wouldn’t know it until after the war.
He would spend these three years in sixteen different hiding places. He was extremely malnourished; when he came out of concealment he weighed just 32 pounds. He ate whatever he could find during that time, like grass and once, a dead fish. Following the war, he had 13 boils on his body from the sicknesses that he’d procured.
“All in all,” he says, “it was not a good time.”
He recalls that his sister, however, in stark contrast to his experience, “did not spend one night without food in her belly.”
She had been staying with a baker, a butcher, and a farmer at different points while in hiding. The farming family was her last place of refuge, and after the war, her family had a hard time getting her back. The farmer’s three sons had been so taken with her that they wanted her to stay.
The last place he stayed was by far the best. The father was headmaster of a boys’ school, and though it was Emil’s dream to go to school, it was far too dangerous for him to attend. Yet the sister of the lady of the house, the headmaster’s sister-in-law, took him under her wing, insisting that he was too old not to learn. She would teach him to read, write, play piano, embroider and knit. Emil honed his skills and became quite handy under her wing.
“I was trying not to come to that.”
Emil shared with us that two families whom he had stayed with were killed for their part in concealing him. It was a difficult tale for him to discuss. He admitted he’d been trying to stay away from the topic.
The first incident that occurred was when he was hidden in a farmer’s home. Gestapo officers arrived and set up a meeting in the barn. He was outside at the time, since he would often sneak out of his hiding places at night. Emil took a beam and placed it across the barn doors, barring them from the outside. Then he took out some matches from his pocket and lit the grass surrounding the barn on fire.
All he knows of what happened next is that it was the last night he ever stayed at the farm and that the people who lived there were shot by the Germans. He never forgave himself for that. When he asked what had occurred, he was told that “something very major happened there.”
The second incident was during his time spent hidden in an attic. He was firmly told never to leave, no matter what happens. He had to be sure that the people on the other side spoke his language and were there to rescue him. When the Nazis entered the house one day, accompanied by a dog, the fake door to the attic concealed him. They found nothing.
From his hiding place, he heard the family who lived in the home screaming out, “No, no, no, no, no.”
Then came the rattling sound of machine guns, and then silence. The entire family had been shot. A day or two passed, he couldn’t be sure, before someone finally came to get him, calling out his name so he could be sure they were there to save him.
Besides for being a Jew, the Gestapo had a specific purpose in hunting Emil down. The relentless pursuit for a boy under the age of ten was not unfounded. Emil’s father had been a target of the Gestapo since 1942, when a group of Nazis entered his photo engraving business, looking to procure images for the Wehrmacht’s newspapers. Instead of refusing, Emil’s father turned, picked up a tray of nitric acid, and threw it in their faces, blinding some of the officers. After the war, Emil learned that they’d always been hunting him in the hope that if they got to the son, they’d get to his father.
“But they never got me,” he says proudly.
Aftermath of the War
Emil recalls vividly the moment they knew the war had ended. roar was heard and everyone ran outside. The Allied planes headed for Berlin were so many and pressed so close together that they colored the sky black. Fewer planes dotted the sky as they made the trip back. As they flew over Holland, pieces of what looked like tinsel were falling from the sky. It turned out that the debris was actually the planes ejecting their secondary fuel tank on their return trip, which killed quite a few people.
The Cohen family after three years of separation. They lived in a home previously owned by a family of Dutch collaborators, who had been evicted by the government. Emil entered the home and saw a man and a woman smoking at the table, and a young girl as well. After a day or two, Emil did something wrong, and the man gave him a rough beating. At this time he understood that the woman in the house was his mother, and he begged her to make the man leave. It was only then that he learned that the man who’d reprimanded him was his father.
After living in horrendous squalor for three years, Emil’s body was sickly and filthy. He looked like a shadow of his pre-war self. His mother gave him a bath in the tub. At one point, the bar of soap she’d been using to clean him with seemingly disappeared. She finally found it underneath Emil’s ribs. That was when she began to cry.
Emil’s father took him on his bicycle to the home of the last family he’d been hiding with, intending to introduce himself and thank them for taking care of his son. The woman of the house met them at the door and accepted her father’s greetings. Then she bluntly told them to get lost. Emil’s father was taken aback; he asked why he couldn’t come in and thank the family.
The headmaster’s wife answered, “I don’t like Jews.”
When he asked why she took such excellent care of his son all this time, she replied, “I’m very religious. He’s a human being that needed saving. But now that it’s over, please get off the property.”
The Cohen family’s new home was in Soust, near the summer palace of Queen Wilhelmina of Holland. Emil attended school with two of the Dutch princesses. In 1948, when the queen abdicated the throne and passed the crown to her daughter Juliana, his entire class attended the celebration at the palace. They lived in Soust until 1949, when they moved to all-time, a suburb of Amsterdam, so his father could relaunch his photo engraving business. It was there that Emil began high school.
Even after the horrors of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was rampant in Holland. Many of its citizens blamed the Jews for the Nazis’ invasion. On the first day of school, Emil’s German teacher read out the names of the class’s four Jewish students. He announced that no matter what they did, he would ascertain that they would never pass his class. True to his word, at the end of the year, all four failed miserably in German. After all of the suffering they had endured, the Jewish students resolved that they weren’t going to put up with it anymore. Following the receipt of their failing marks, they cornered the teacher near a marble staircase and threw him down the steps. He never taught again. Emil reports that quite a few kids in school called him a dirty Jew.
“They came home with blood on their face. Because I learned to fight back.” Emil moved on to a new high school in the area, where he thrived.
Neither of Emil’s parents ever discussed their war experiences. He did find out that during their time in hiding, his mother, who had an Aryan look and spoke fluent German, survived by cleaning houses occupied by Nazis and hitchhiking on German transports. His father’s activities with the Underground and any other memories from his parents of those three years always remained a secret. He had fervently hoped for an answer about what had happened to him when he first entered hiding, desperate to know how he had been made to forget who , unfortunately, was before he became Bobby Jansen. No answer was forthcoming. His parents refused to talk about it.
Moving to America
Emil’s parents’ relationship was on shaky ground around the time of the family’s immigration to America. Emil’s father was a handsome man who easily attracted women’s attention and had been unfaithful to his wife since the beginning of their marriage. Emil knows for certain of half-siblings of his still living in Holland whom Mr. Cohen had fathered. Things had grown too strained in the house to remain in the country any longer. Emil’s father chose Israel; his mother rigidly refused, saying she wasn’t going to stand in line for a loaf of bread. After some deliberation, they chose the United States. Although the wait for Dutch immigration was a long two years, Mrs. Cohen’s Belgian nationality from birth allowed them to immigrate immediately, due to Belgium’s far more lenient quota. While Belgians enjoyed their life in Europe, relations between Dutch citizens were tense. Many of the people of Holland had collaborated with the Germans throughout the war, and trust between each other was at an all-time low.
After a nine-day boat ride, the Cohen family arrived in the States. They made their home in Paramus, New Jersey, as that was where their American sponsor was. Emil was 16 years old. He enrolled in the local Paramus high school, but the principal told him that he was in the wrong place. He drove Emil to Hackensack high school, where he introduced him to the principal. He also telegraphed Emil’s old Dutch school for his transcripts. When the principal of Hackensack high school took a look at his credits, he was shocked. He had enough to graduate from college.
“What are you doing in high school?” he asked.
Emil responded that he needed to learn English, American history, and in general, how to fit in with American society. Upon arriving in America, the only English that Emil knew how to speak was a Shakespearean tongue, which he’d regularly use in addressing his peers. The principal helped him choose the required courses to graduate from high school. In his French class, Emil’s teacher discovered that he spoke better French than she did.
She posed a similar question to Emil: “Why are you taking French?”
To which he responded, “So I can learn my English.”
I asked Emil if he encountered any intolerance in America, similar to what he’d experienced in Holland. He answered, no, never, that he was met with an extremely warm, welcoming feeling.
This turned out to have been both a figurative and literal feeling for him, because the warmer climate in New Jersey was something he found extremely hard to adjust to. It was especially a challenge while in his Hackensack high school, where he was training for the Olympics in track. The heat and humidity were so intense that he passed out a couple of times. It wasn’t until his second year in the US, when the Cohens moved to Washington township, that he got used to the weather. His coach told him that he was eligible for a scholarship to Columbia University for his excellence in track. When he approached his parents about the proposition, however, his father told him he had to turn it down. He needed Emil to work in the family business, he said. So, as a dutiful son, Emil passed on his ride to Columbia. After working for his father for several years, he asked his father what would be with the business when he would retire. He answered that he would be giving the business to Emil’s half-siblings, and when Emil protested, he told him that he’d taught his son a trade, and that was his donation to him. The business would be for his other children. That was when Emil said goodbye to his father and never saw him again.
“So that was a kick in the ass,” Emil said, recalling how the senior Mr. Cohen never even met his grandchildren.
Emil deeply regrets never having the opportunity to go to college, because he had “G-d’s gift” of a photographic memory.
Emil met his wife in March 1961. Diana lived in River Edge, New Jersey, and worked in New York. She would take the bus there every day and became friendly with another young woman on the same commute. One day, she told Diana she’s got a friend she wants her to meet. Diana declined, saying she wasn’t interested in any blind dates. So the girl brought Emil over to Diana’s house to meet; the next time they met, technically, would not be a blind date. They married in October of that year. They went on to have two children together and lived their whole lives in New Jersey. Emil worked in lithography until his retirement in 1992, when he, unfortunately, lost most of his eyesight. He’d been blind in one eye since a child, and toward his old age, his sight continued to deteriorate. When he and Diana moved to West Windsor, he gave his car keys to his wife, and voluntarily quit driving.
I asked Emil how he’d react if today he were to meet someone with the anti-semitic intolerance of his teacher and peers in his first high school in Holland.
He responded bluntly, “Probably the same way.”
Diana agreed, adding, “He has a cane now.”
She says he still fights the war in his sleep. Emil has spoken to his sister many times about each of their war experiences. She says that for her it’s forgotten, but Emil still lives in it.
My final question to Emil was how he felt about living as a Jew today in America. Is he proud of his Jewish identity? Does he ever feel threatened?
To which he responded, “No, I don’t feel threatened anymore. And yes, I am proud to be a Jew, and thank G-d that will never disappear.”
His father converted to Christianity after the war, and had both his children baptized. He said it was because he was sick and tired of the suffering he endured just for being a Jew.
But Emil thought otherwise. “Me? A drop of water is not gonna change me. I’m a Jew.”
Emil’s mother was living with his sister and brother-in-law towards the end of her life. When she passed away, her son-in-law, an Irish Catholic, wanted to give her a Catholic burial.
When Emil heard the news from his sister, he said, “Put that son of a bitch on the phone.”
He hastened to remind me how much he loved his brother-in-law. But Emil demanded to know if he had to remind him that his mother was born a Jew and died a Jew.
“Send the body over,” he said, and Emil’s mother now rests in a Jewish cemetery.
She had always asked he and Diana for a cup of coffee every time they went to see her. Now every time they go to visit her resting place, they make sure to bring her one and pour it around her gravesite.
Emil’s story is undoubtedly a thrilling one, and a fascinating glimpse into the hidden lives of Dutch Jews during the Holocaust. His staunch connection to his Jewish identity despite the horrors he went through is an extremely emboldening message for Jews as well. Yet the part of his story which intrigues me the most is the way it portrays the two conflicting sides to the human psyche. We all have our selfish and our selfless parts, our good and evil halves, our demon and our angel whispering in each ear. The woman who protected Emil and gave him the best home he ever found while in hiding turned out to hate his people. His father may have done great things for the operation working to overthrow the Nazis in Holland, but his family also saw his miserly and cruel shades. Even the Allied planes that were sent to protect the citizens of Holland became responsible for their deaths. Emil’s own actions which he took to destroy a group out for his own blood and that of Jews everywhere still had severe repercussions for good people trying to protect him. Human beings are not nearly as black and white as would be comforting to assume. Perhaps it’s for the best: we can also take it to mean that everyone can change someday, for better or for worse. Only time will tell.