Paul M Cohn: Childhood in Hamburg

I was born, in Hamburg, on the 8th January 1924, the only child of my parents Julia and Jakob Cohn. Both my parents were born in Hamburg, as were three of my grandparents. Previous generations of my family came from Hamburg, Leipzig, Berlin, Greiffenberg, but so far as I have been able to trace, always from Germany. They considered themselves German (at least until 1933); my father fought at the front in the First World War, was wounded many times, and awarded the Iron Cross (the highest decoration for bravery awarded to the German armed forces in wartime). Because of his hesitation in emigrating, it became more and more difficult. Unfortunately, his attempts were unsuccessful.

When I was born, my parents lived with my maternal grandmother in Isestrasse. When she died, in October 1925, my parents moved into a rented flat in a new building in Lattenkamp, in the district of Winterhude. The front of our building overlooked the elevated railway which I frequently observed, being interested in technical things. At this time very few people owned cars; when, in 1928, I contracted scarlet fever, I was taken to the hospital in a one-horse carriage. At the rear, we overlooked a laundry yard, with many horses and carts, and a few delivery vans; but the small adjacent chicken run was more fascinating. The cock crowed in the morning like an illustration in my favourite book "Max und Moritz" by Wilhelm Busch.

Here I spent happy childhood years, mostly unaffected by the political and economic crises of the 1920s. My father owned an import business and my mother was a teacher, and although we did not live in luxury we had sufficient. As my mother worked during the day we had a home help, but mostly I had to rely on myself, and was happy playing alone. I was a house-mouse and only reluctantly played outside. There were numerous children in the neighbourhood, and a few of the older boys had the upper hand.

I attended a kindergarten for a while. In April 1930, I entered school (Alsterdorfer Strasse School). I was very eager to learn, and could hardly wait the day. I enjoyed the lessons, less so the breaks, as I was often teased and was unable to defend myself. I have no evidence that antisemitism played a role. (There were one or two other Jewish boys in the class, but this was not a topic.) Our teacher was very nice and I got on well with her. When she became absent for a long period, due to illness, the class was divided up among other classes. I acquired a male teacher who continuously picked on me and punished me without cause. When my parents visited the head teacher they learnt that he was a National Socialist. As nothing could be done to remedy this situation, in 1931, my parents moved me to the Meerweinstrasse School. The school had been founded in 1930, and my mother taught there. The school was very progressive, for example it was coeducational. By chance, my form teacher was Jewish. She, and my mother, were the only two teachers at the school who were Jewish. I experienced no antisemitism during the two and a half years I spent at the school. Politics was not a topic, and religious education lessons were not compulsory, "Lebenskunde" (Ethics) being the alternative. In 1932, a small sensation occurred when one or two boys, (not from my class), came to school in Nazi uniform. During the break they were gazed at like rare birds. There were no repercussions.

Things were very different after 1933. My father's business, which had declined over the previous years, was wound up. In April, the "Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums" came into force, (the Act of 7th April 1933 to re-establish the civil service with tenure). With the re-establishment of a "national" civil service, with tenure, civil servants could be dismissed. Civil servants who were not of "Aryan" descent i.e. Jews (by Nazi definition), were compulsorily retired from work and, in October, my mother was dismissed. Only after long negotiations was she able to obtain a small pension, due to her 25 years of public service. My parents now decided to send me to the "Jüdische Schule in Hamburg" ("Jewish School in Hamburg"), the Talmud-Tora-Schule, at No. 30 Grindelhof, in the Grindel quarter. This was a considerable distance from where we lived, but it was ideal preparation for secondary school entry, that was to take place in 1934. I remember that we had the same arithmetic book in the Talmud-Tora-Schule as we had in Meerweinstrasse, but in the latter we were on page 17, whereas my new class were on page 34. Shortly thereafter, the class teacher invited my mother to the school and informed her that I had much to catch up on. I was especially to master mental arithmetic. After I had recovered from the shock I worked flat out. Intensive learning was totally new to me, but an enjoyable experience. At the end of the year I had no difficulty with the entry exam for secondary school. If I had remained at my old school the result could have been very different. The main reason for the change of school was that I should be in a sympathetic environment. I was conscious of the difference between school in the Grindel quarter and my home in Winterhude. We experienced practically no open antisemitism there. It was more common that someone spoke in a friendly way to us, but added that he officially had to think and behave in such and such a way. It is possible that this behaviour blurred how imperative it was for a Jew to emigrate to survive. The ever more far-reaching antisemitic laws made this alarmingly clear, and at the same time made the possibility of emigration more difficult. In mid 1937, we moved to Klosterallee. This not only brought me nearer the school, and other pupils, but gave me a greater feeling of security, as most Hamburg Jews lived in the Grindel quarter. The location of the flat also made it easier to attend the synagogue. We were not orthodox Jews but attended synagogue on high holidays.

These school years were a delight for me. We had many teachers with doctor's degrees, who made learning a pleasure. The German lessons given by Dr Ernst Loewenberg, the son of the poet Jakob Loewenberg, gave me a knowledge of and predilection for my native language, that I have never lost. The English lessons seemed to me more entertainment than learning. When I later came to England I had no problem in communicating. As I left school at the age of 15, I only had a short introduction to the natural sciences: Physics for a year, and Chemistry not at all. The Mathematics teacher was our form teacher. He was a disciplinarian, and I was somewhat cheeky. From the very start a poor relationship developed between us. But mathematics was my favourite subject, and he was an outstanding teacher, so we gradually came to respect one another.

Emigration was a continual problem, that became acute in 1938. On the Pogrom Night of 9th/10th November 1938, my father, like most adult Jewish males, was arrested by the police and imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. School was interrupted as most teachers had been imprisoned. My mother had the double task of getting my father released and of finding a possibility of emigrating. Due to mass unemployment most countries were unprepared to grant work permits. To acquire an emigration permit one had to find someone to guarantee that the emigrant would not become a burden to the state. Unfortunately, we had no connections abroad. The only place that did not require an entry permit was Shanghai, and all ships sailing there were fully booked. Then the Netherlands offered to admit children without a guarantee. My mother immediately registered me, and I began to learn Dutch. My father was released after nearly four months imprisonment. Before being released from the concentration camp the prisoners were informed that: "Wir entlassen Euch nur zu einem Zweck: damit ihr auswandert. Wenn Ihr das nicht tut, könntet Ihr Euch hier mal wieder finden. Und dann kommt Ihr nicht mehr raus". ("We are releasing you with the sole intention that you emigrate. If you don't, you could find yourselves back here. And then you won't get out again.") Now emigration was essential, but practically impossible. Shortly before this, one had to hand in all gold and silver; each family was allowed to retain a maximum of six pieces of cutlery; furnishings could not be taken when emigrating. Money had been frozen earlier.

In Spring 1939, England announced it was prepared to take in children without guarantee, and my parents immediately registered me, regarding the island safer than the Netherlands, which was unfortunately shortly thereafter confirmed. In April 1939, I left school, one year before the school-leaving exam. The formalities were fulfilled, and my emigration, on the Kindertransport to England, was scheduled for 21st May 1939. A refugee committee in England had found me a job on a chicken farm. Failing a work permit, I was not allowed to do paid work, but was to learn farming, and when 18 years old was to be sent to the dominions, where there was no lack of work.

I was very sad having to leave my parents behind, but I was aware that our collective chance of emigration could improve when I first travelled to England. My parents appeared to be in good spirits at our parting, although they must have had the premonition that we would not see one another again.

The 4124\large\frac{1}{2}\normalsize hectare chicken farm, with around 5,000 chickens, was owned by a couple who needed assistance with the work. The actual work was easy, principally feeding and watering the birds, and mucking out, but it involved around 70 hours work a week. I only had three afternoons free every two weeks. I had grown up a towny, but I knew this was the chance of a new life. I corresponded regularly with my parents throughout the summer of 1939; I pursued the possibility of work for my parents, e.g. as housekeeper and gardener (my father was an enthusiastic "Schreber-Gärtner") (allotment gardener). My efforts were unsuccessful, and when war broke out all possibility of emigration ended.

From this point on, I only received a short letter once a month from my parents, through the Red Cross, that I answered. It was also sometimes possible to send longer letters via relatives in America. The letters became less and less frequent, and at the end of 1941 they stopped altogether. At the end of the war I learnt that my parents had been deported, on 6th December 1941, to Riga, in Latvia, and had not returned.

The rest is quickly told. At the end of 1941 the chicken farmer had to give up his farm due to lack of feed. After a short training as a precision engineer I acquired a work permit, and worked in a factory for 4124\large\frac{1}{2}\normalsize years. During this time I took a correspondence course to study for my school leaving certificate. With encouragement from the committee for refugees I passed the Cambridge Scholarship Examination, and was awarded a scholarship to study mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1951, I graduated with a PhD. I then spent a year in Nancy, France, as Chargé des Recherches, then as lecturer in Manchester and London universities, and finally as Astor Professor at University College London, until 1989 when I retired. I continue to do research in mathematics.

How have I settled down here? In a way, very well, which has to do with the unprejudiced manner in which my English colleagues have accepted me. I married an English woman of Jewish descent, and we have two grown-up daughters. However, I am conscious of my origins; I am not a genuine Englishman - but I am also not German any more. I do not feel homesick. It is a yearning for something that no longer exists, something like a pain in a leg after it has been amputated. I have often, professionally, visited post-war Germany, Frankfurt, Bielefeld, Darmstadt, Duisburg, Berlin and several times the Oberwolfach Research Institute. I have a good relationship with German colleagues, but my home is here in England.

Last Updated March 2021