Friday, July 1, 2016

Georg Cohn.
Photo courtesy of Emilie Cohn Roi



Under German Occupation 1940-1945

Germany’s occupation of Denmark (lasting from April 9, 1940 until May 5, 1945) differed from its occupation of the other European countries. The fiction of neutrality was maintained, in theory though less in practice, yet it enabled the King, symbol of a free Denmark for his people, as well as the government, the courts and the central institutions to maintain a certain degree of independence. 

The people and their leaders were thus able to preserve their moral freedom, in disregard of the presence of the German occupying forces. This “neutrality” also provided a safeguard for the well-being of the Jews in Denmark - up to the end of the summer of 1943.

Georg Cohn -
Photo: Courtesy Emilie Cohn Roi 

Negotiations between Denmark and Germany were carried out between the two foreign ministries. At the same time, the Danish government maintained a policy of cooperation. 

The recall to Berlin of Ambassador Renthe-Fink (who had warned against touching Denmark’s Jews), and his replacement by Dr. Werner Best as Reich-Plenipotentiary in November 1942, marked the beginning of a change in Germany’s policy towards Denmark. Strikes and acts of sabotage became more and more frequent during the summer of 1943. 

When Germany gave the Danish government an unacceptable ultimatum, the government resigned in late August 1943. Germany declared a state of emergency; the King was placed under palace-arrest, and parliament closed. Without a government, the department heads and general directors of the ministries continued to negotiate with the German authorities. 

Germany now treated Denmark as any of the other occupied countries. They decided to deport all the Jews. The planned round-up of the Jews on the second day of the Jewish New Year (October 1, 1943) was leaked to the Jewish leadership. Forewarned, almost all the Jews left their homes and went into hiding, helped spontaneously by friends, neighbors or even the man in the street. The Danish people, indignant at the threat to innocent fellow-citizens, came to their aid. The underground arranged for them to be smuggled across the straits in fishing-boats to neutral Sweden.

Thus, the majority of the 7,000 Jews who lived in Denmark were saved. Some 470 Jews were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Irma Bamberger, Elfriede Cohn’s mother, who had remained in her home in Copenhagen in spite of the warnings, was among those arrested and sent to Theresienstadt.

The Flight to Sweden October 1943

Georg Cohn had remained in Rungsted with his wife and eight children (their five and the three children of Naphtali and Mina, who had passed away) during the winter months as well, believing that the village would be safer than the city. He continued to work in the Foreign Ministry, though Munch commented at one time in his diary: “Georg Cohn comes in occasionally and takes no part in the work.” There had been a suggestion that he should be sent to serve as Danish Consul in Portugal, but nothing came of this proposal. The Danish authorities had steadfastly refused to comply with German demands to dismiss Jews from all positions of prominence in public service and in the press.

On Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), Tito Wessel, Denmark’s ambassador to Chile, who had already warned Georg Cohn two weeks earlier, came to the house in Rungsted. At his insistence, the family left at once. That night they stayed with neighbors. They left the following day, shortly before a German truck arrived at the house to arrest them. After a week in hiding, they escaped from Hornbæk harbor, where a small fishing boat waited to take them to Sweden.

On October 17, (1943), Munch wrote in his dairy that Best had told Svenningsen (Director of the Foreign Ministry) that a few persons in whom Scavenius or members of his former government were specially interested could be issued permits to travel abroad… and that Georg Cohn with his family, without permits, had crossed over. (Documents show that Best in fact refused to issue any permits!)

Sweden 1943-1945

The family arrived at Hälsingborg on 8 October1943, the eve of Yom Kippur, staying briefly in Ramlösa Camp before continuing to Stockholm.

Soon after, Frants Hvass, Georg Cohn’s former secretary, now a department head in the Foreign Ministry, forwarded Irma Bamberger’s address in Theresienstadt and information to the effect that letters and parcels of clothing (and later of food) could be sent. Several postcards arrived from her. 

In June 1944, Hvass was a member of the International Red Cross delegation that paid a visit of inspection to Theresienstadt.  He then went to Stockholm to report on the “reasonable conditions” of the Danish Jews that he had witnessed. Hvass even showed Georg and Elfriede Cohn an album of idyllic drawings of the camp by one of the prisoners.  In April 1945, Irma Bamberger was among the Danish Jews who were brought to Sweden in the “White Buses”, a few weeks before Germany surrendered.

During his year and one half stay in the Swedish capital, Georg Cohn worked in the Danish Embassy with Ambassador Kruse. He also gave lectures on the prevention of war at Stockholm University, spoke on the radio and wrote his book: Kan Krig forhindres? (Can War Be Prevented? A New Science of War Prevention).

After the War 1945-1956

As soon as war ended, Georg Cohn returned to his post at the Foreign Ministry in Copenhagen and three months later the family followed, returning to their house in Rungsted. They met survivors from the death camps and heard about the horrors.

In October 1945, Georg Cohn, the only male speaker, was invited to address an international women’s conference for peace in Copenhagen. He suggested that they should find new ways of securing peace, recommending that they form their own party and become active in political life.

In September 1946, he was appointed Minister with the rank of Ambassador. Shortly after, he flew to New York as a member of the Danish delegation to the opening session of the United Nations at Lake Success. 

Returning after three months, he lectured widely, also on the radio, about his experiences at Lake Success. He foresaw serious problems for smaller states, largely because of the veto rights of the major powers.

In 1947, he offered to volunteer his services to the Jewish Agency for Palestine, so they could benefit from his experience in international law, to help its diplomatic mission at Lake Success. The Jewish Agency, however, already had an expert.

Not long afterwards, Israel’s Prime Minister Ben-Gurion sent Haim Cohn, the future Attorney-General and Supreme Court judge, to Copenhagen to ask his opinion on the issue of State and Religion in the future State of Israel. Georg Cohn strongly recommended separation.

In 1948, Georg Cohn participated in the Red Cross Conference in Stockholm.  Later the same year he headed an international committee to resolve the outstanding problems of the continental shelf and the issues of sovereignty over the sea-bed and sub-soil adjacent to the coastline. 

In 1949, heheaded the Danish delegation to the Red Cross Conference in Geneva, staying there with his family for several months. At this conference, Denmark supported Israel’s request for recognition of the “Red Magen David”, which was turned down.

He visited Israel in April, 1950 with his wife and two daughters. The rebirth of the Jewish State was in his eyes nothing less than a miracle, and the most important event in his lifetime.

That same year, threats of a new war (in Korea), possibly nuclear, concerned the Free World. Interviews with Georg Cohn appeared in the Danish press and radio almost daily on this and other topics.

World Peace continued to absorb him, as did his continuing concern for the civilian populations and the rights of prisoners-of-war in time of hostilities. Yet in his later years, his thoughts were occupied with the issue of justice for the individual before the law. 

His last book, Eksistentialisme og Retsvidenskab - Existentialism and the Science of Law, was published in Denmark in 1952. Translations of this book also appeared in English and German and (posthumously) in Hebrew. The book argues that real law is bound to the moment and results from an evaluation of the total concrete situation, which cannot be reached by applying one or several rules of law, legal concepts or principles. In forming his verdict the judge must consider the human aspect and the unique circumstances of each individual case.

At Home and with the Family

Elfriede and Georg had five children. In 1936, Georg Cohn’s mother died. The following year Naphtali and his wife also passed away, and their children were brought up in Georg and Elfriede’s home. Elfriede’s two brothers were arrested the morning after the Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”) pogrom, and later released from Buchenwald concentration camp, thanks to Georg Cohn’s intervention, and brought to Denmark. (Her two sisters also left Germany, one going with her husband to Bolivia, and the younger reaching London with a Kinder-transport.)   

Shortly after Kristallnacht, Elfriede’s father died in Kitzingen, and his widow finally received an entry permit to join her daughter in Copenhagen, arriving just before the outbreak of the war.

Returning initially to Rungsted in 1945, the family eventually moved to an apartment in Copenhagen, spending the summer months in a new house in Humlebæk on the coast. Georg Cohn spent his free time reading, writing and lecturing, enjoying music, theater, films and nature, walking in the city or travelling abroad. He was also a connoisseur and collector of art, old and illustrated books, and Judaica.

The Last Years

Georg Cohn continued working in the Foreign Ministry, even after retirement age. His opinion was still courted by the media, as well as by politicians and diplomats, on every possible aspect of current affairs. He was popular and widely quoted, both for his wise counsel and for his sharp sense of humor. His philosophical involvement with Existentialism never diminished. 

He remained faithful to Orthodox Judaism and tradition, firmly believing in the need for loyalty to one’s heritage. He was deeply concerned about the future of the old family synagogue in Læderstræde, founded by his mother’s grandfather Moses Levy in 1845.

Weakened by heart trouble since 1953, Georg Cohn again fell ill in late 1955. On April 8, 1956 he died at his home in Copenhagen, at the age of 68.

Obituaries on the radio and in the press recognized his great services to Denmark, both as a world-famous expert in International Law and as a philosopher of law who had pioneered a new science of war prevention. Three major contributions were singled out: his part in maintaining neutrality in the First World War, his role in resolving the Greenland dispute and  his unceasing concern for the protection of civilians and prisoners-of-war. 

Georg Cohn had burned his diaries when the Germans invaded. However, two brief notes and a chronology of events in his public life, written after 1950, were found among the papers in his library and seem to sum up what he considered most important in his life.

Elfriede Cohn lived another 38 years and saw grown-up grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She died on April 29, 1994 in her home in Copenhagen. She was 87 years old.

She had kept the apartment and library without change from the days of her husband. Old and new books, documents, photographs, newspapers, articles, letters and notes had all been left there, safeguarding the told and untold stories of former generations and times past.

With gratitude to author Emilie Cohn Roi

The text is based on Emilie Cohn Roi's book, published in Hebrew in 2003: Courtyards of Copenhagen
Georg Cohn: The Quest for War Prevention
Other books by the author include:
*A Different Story, About a Danish Girl in World War II, available in English (Yad Vashem Publications) Finnish, German and Hebrew

*Chance Meeting (Pegishah Mikrit) in Hebrew