A compassionate officer and a Hamburg refugee
Eighty-six-year-old Eva Shane, née Cohn, lives alone in a spacious house on the North Side of Chicago, but some of her most precious memories go back seven decades to a harrowing night on the France-Germany border when she, her mother and her brother tried to join their father in Southern France. They were attempting to escape before they were deported from Antwerp, Belgium. This was the second time they managed to flee from the Nazi regime since they left what had always been their home – Hamburg, Germany.
Once my parents and I were watching at night. They were marching, the SA. And they were singing a song ‘Wenn das Judenblut von den Messern spritzt,’ – when the blood of the Jews is running down the knives.”
Although just a child, Eva Shane’s memories of that night are as sharp as if the events had occured just yesterday. Very calmly and with a regal bearing, she recounts the events of the night a kindly German officer helped the refugees to a new life that eventually brought her to America and to Chicago.Eva Shane, 86, a Holocaust survivor from Hamburg, at her home in Chicago, 2014.
In a town in Northern France, five-year-old Eva Cohn’s mother cautiously knocked at a door. No one answered. She tried again. Again, no one answered.
She was confused. Days ago she had sold her family’s belongings to send cash to a broker, who earned a living passing Jews across a demarcation line between occupied and unoccupied zones of France in the dead of night. The line was closely guarded by German soldiers 24 hours everyday of the week. Without the smuggler, they couldn’t make it.
On the other side of the line Cohn’s father eagerly waited. He had just been released from a concentration camp. The French mayor in his city had promised to protect the Cohns from the Nazis. But first, the rest of the family needed to make their way to Southern France.
“He was arrested yesterday,” neighbors told Cohn’s mother. The last straw was broken. They didn’t even have money to return home.
Looking around, Cohn’s mother found a German headquarters a block away. A Nazi flag waved in the breeze. She turned to Cohn’s brother and said, “You stay here. In case we don’t come back, you [will] know what happened.”
She held her daughter’s hand and walked toward the two German guards. “Who is the highest authority?” she asked. “Could I see him?”
“I was horrified,” Cohn recalled. “Oh my God, she wants to see this guy? They have to see the paper and the name Cohn shows we are Jewish.”
The guards led mother and daughter to a waiting room. A few minutes later, a soldier came out and said, “Follow me.”
They walked into a Nazi officer’s huge office. He didn’t salute, “Heil Hitler,” but asked directly, “What can I do for you?”
“My husband was deported and I don’t know where he is,” Cohn’s mother said, making up a story. “It’s hard for me to raise two kids. A close relative in southern France offered to support us to move there.”
The officer looked at her with an expression clearly indicating he didn’t believe a single word she was saying. He stared at them for a moment. But to Cohn, it felt like eternity.
“Please have a seat,” the German officer said. He called in his secretary and whispered to him.
Cohn and her mother sat down, nervously awaiting their destiny.
Ten minutes later, the secretary came back and handed the Nazi officer a paper. He looked at it and handed it to Shane’s mother.
It was a German pass to cross the demarcation line.
“I was convinced that’s the only time that [paper] had ever been given to a Jewish person,” Cohn said. “It was a miracle.”
“There is one bus a day to pass the demarcation line, and it’s gone already,” the German officer said. “Do you have a hotel?”
“No, we just arrived,” Cohn’s mother told him.
He arranged for them to live in a hotel where nobody but German soldiers could stay. For the first time in years, Cohn enjoyed a decent meal and a comfortable bed to sleep in overnight.
The next day, three of them went to the bus stop. One Nazi inspector on the bus asked them to show their pass.
Cohn’s mother gave him the pass. The inspector looked at her and the pass, looked at her one more time, then called another inspector over.
“Look at this! What are we going to do with this?” he said with hesitation. He had never seen a pass that was granted to someone with a Jewish surname.
Cohn’s mother looked scared. After all their efforts, it still wouldn’t work.
“It’s legal,” the other inspector said. “There is nothing we can do.”
They allowed the three of them to leave the Nazis behind on the bus. Eventually, they made their way to Macon in Southern France and reunited with Cohn’s father.
“To us, it was heaven because we felt safe,” Cohn said.
After the war, Cohn’s father tried to find the life-saving Nazi officer, but all he discovered was that the officer had been sent to Russia after the Nazis were defeated, a common way to rid themselves of a disobeying soldier.
Continue with the next story →