The love story of survivors Walter and Hanna Kohner is part of a presentation by their daughter, Julie, in her program, Voices of the Generations.
Photo courtesy of Julie Kohner
April 14, 2009
Like many children of Holocaust survivors, Julie Kohner feels she has a responsibility to remind younger generations of the horrors of the Shoa.
However, in Kohner’s case, that sense of responsibility is heightened by the knowledge that in 1953, in an era when many survivors resisted talking about the Holocaust — or felt they were discouraged from doing so — her mother, Hanna Kohner, shared with millions of people her story of surviving four concentration camps, including Auschwitz.
“My mother on May 27, 1953, was the first Holocaust survivor to have the story of her life told on national television, when she appeared on This Is Your Life,” said Kohner in a phone interview with the NJ Jewish News from her Los Angeles home.
This Is Your Life was a TV documentary series that ran from 1952 to 1961. On the show, its producer and host, Ralph Edwards, would surprise someone (usually a celebrity or public figure) and conduct a biography of the subject, aided by the appearance of family members and old friends.
The episode on which Hanna Kohner appeared featured other survivors from her past, providing many Americans with their first taste of real people who had been subjected to the horrors of Nazism.
For 19 years, Julie Kohner has been touring the country, telling her mother’s story and her parents’ tale of “love conquering evil” as part of a multimedia teaching experience that includes watching that landmark TV show featuring her mother.
She will present her program, Voices of the Generations, at Congregation Etz Chaim-Monroe Township Jewish Center on Monday evening, April 27.
On her tour of the metropolitan area in commemoration of Yom Hashoa, Kohner will also appear at Temple Beth Shalom, Livingston, April 20; Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, South Orange, and Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, Livingston, both on April 21; Temple Emanu-El, Livingston, April 23; and Temple Sholom, Plainfield, April 25.
Kohner characterizes her mother’s life as “the story of survival in a small town in Czechoslovakia” eight miles from the German border, where her mother and father, Walter, were childhood sweethearts. Moreover, it is that rare Holocaust story, she said, that has “a happy ending.”
It was only through luck and after much suffering that that happy ending came about.
Her father had two older brothers in the United States who sent him affidavits allowing Walter to leave before 1938.
Her mother, then just a teenager, was not able to get out, said Kohner, “but my father promised her once he got to America he would arrange to send for her.”
As conditions worsened in her hometown, her mother was fortunate to secure papers through relatives allowing her to work as a maid in Amsterdam.
“She hoped to be able to get her parents and brother to Amsterdam, but it never happened,” said Kohner. “In 1942 my mother wrote my father that it was impossible to leave Europe under any circumstances. She had fallen in love with another man, Carl Benjamin.”
The couple was married, but only weeks apart both Hanna and Carl were arrested. He was immediately taken to Auschwitz and killed in the gas chambers.
In 1945, Hanna was liberated by American troops from Mauthausen in Austria, the last of the four camps where she had been interned.
“One of the soldiers asked her if there was anyone he could send word to to let them know she had survived,” said Kohner. “My mother said perhaps her old fiance.”
Unfortunately, Hanna could only recall that he lived on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, but had forgotten the house number.
“If you know Sunset Boulevard, you know how big it is,” said Kohner. “It would have been a miracle for someone to find my father.”
Yet that letter reached Los Angeles, where it was put in another envelope and sent to Kohner’s father, who was then serving in the United States Army. Stationed in Europe, he was translating news into a variety of languages for Radio Luxembourg.
The Kohners’ story is told in a 1997 book.
“As soon as he got that letter he set out to find her; they were reunited in Amsterdam,” said Kohner. The two married and in 1946 moved to Los Angeles.
Hanna Kohner died in 1990, Walter Kohner in 1996.
Their story was recounted in a 1997 book, Hanna and Walter: A Love Story, which Kohner will also discuss at her appearances.
Rabbi Benjamin Levy of the Monroe Township Jewish Center said he wanted to bring Kohner to the synagogue because “we wanted to do something new and different within the congregation.”
“We wanted something kids could come to and be educated,” said Levy. “We wanted something by which to be inspired. We wanted something that tells us why this is important to know even after all these years.
“I think Julie Kohner and her presentation also fall under the theme of Pesach and its multigenerational message to transit Jewish values and history from one generation to the other.”
The program at the Monroe synagogue will begin to 7:30 p.m. The cost is $10, including refreshments. For information, call 732-251-1119.
For more information on Kohner, visit her website, www.voicesofthegenerations.com.