< Back

Kaethe Cohn's Escape from Berlin in London in 1942

Charles Rubens

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Kaethe Cohn's Escape from Berlin to London in 1942* CHARLES RUBENS It is now well over fifty years since the end of the Second World War, yet almost every week a new book appears about the Nazi regime - the degree of involve? ment of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust, the willing help given by Switzer? land to the German war effort, and so forth. It may, therefore, be a relief to record the story of 'one that got away', and incidentally to hear something about the conditions of life for Jews in Berlin during the first half of the War. Early in 1943, a woman in her thirties arrived at an airfield in the West of England on a flight from Lisbon. She had a stateless person's passport issued in Switzerland, and claimed that she was a Jewish refugee who had escaped from Berlin. The official who questioned her was extremely sceptical. She was sent to Holloway prison and released after several days of interrogation by MI5. Her name was Kaethe Cohn and she wrote an account of her escape which was published in translation by Gollancz in 1944.1 She wrote under the name Catherine Klein and used fictitious names for other people in order to avoid possible action by the Nazis. She also omits a number of incidents which I have been able to supply from conversations with her after the War, when she and her husband became personal friends. She was a distant relative of my wife. She was born Kaethe Gassenheimer, in Eschwege, West Germany, in July 1907. At eighteen she went to Berlin as a kindergarten teacher at the Froebel School and there met and married Ernst Cohn, a young doctor with a growing practice. At the time she was described by a friend as good-looking, clever and charming. This accords with my recollection of her and may have played a considerable part in her successful escape. For a few years the Cohns led a normal life, with many friends, visits to theatres, concerts and opera, holidays in Switzerland and so on. All this ended when Hitler came to power. Jewish doctors could no longer practise, Jews were forbidden to go to theatres, parks or swimming pools and their valuables were confiscated - they became second-class citizens. The climax came with Kristallnacht in November 1938, when Jewish shops, offices and cars were destroyed or damaged and many Jews were beaten up. The * Paper presented to the Society on 19 June 1997. 277</page><page sequence="2">Charles Rubens Cohns, like many others, took refuge, in their case with a mixed couple in the country for a few days. Like most other Jews they decided to emigrate. It was not easy. From enquir? ies at the American and British Consulates they ascertained that America had an annual quota for refugees and that there was a waiting list of about three years. To be included in the quota list a close relative had to file an affidavit of support and, if successful, an applicant could obtain a British transit visa, pro? vided someone in Britain of adequate means could guarantee support for the waiting period of three years. Through a relative in America they managed to have their names included in the American quota, but could find sufficient guar? antees for a British transit visa for only one person. After much heart-searching they decided that, as men were in greater danger than women, Dr Cohn should go to London and that she should follow as soon as he could obtain for her a domestic permit. This, they had been told, would be fairly easy. He left Germany on i August 1939. Soon after he telephoned to say that he had procured a domestic permit for her to work as a nursery teacher. But it was too late; war broke out and the permit never arrived. She was still on the American quota, so she went to the American Consulate to find out how long she would have to wait. It was while queuing there that she met a reporter for a New York newspaper, called James Harriman, who was chatting to people in order to write a news story. She told him he should try to help instead of looking for atrocity stories for his readers, and he took her name and address and promised to do his best. He would later play a decisive part in her escape. On 3 May 1940 all Jews were ordered to report at the nearest labour exchange. There, after a long wait, they were harangued by the local labour official, a former porter now strutting about in a uniform, who told them how fortunate they were to be allowed to assist the German war effort. If they did not cooperate they would be punished by death or deportation. There followed a slave market in which Managers selected suitable workers; these were then medically exam? ined and then allocated them to various factories, in her case to the Siemens factory. She writes in her book how: At 5 am I must be at the tram stop. I carry my overalls, some sandwiches, a piece of soap substitute, a coffee cup and malt coffee. Eighteen minutes later I change to a train. It is always a rush - I have to be at the factory gate by 5.50 am. Here the labour slaves are met by an Aryan foreman and marched in formation to various departments. We have separate workrooms and cloakrooms - no Aryan is allowed here. The Manager is an engineer - he has no party badge and tries to treat us with consideration. He has no interest in Hitler or Nazi ideology. At 8 o'clock we have a 15 minutes break for breakfast and at one o'clock we break for lunch. We are marched to the canteen which has by then been purged of Aryans. 278</page><page sequence="3">Kaethe Cohn's Escape from Berlin to London in 1942 For a few pennies and a great number of ration points we can get a one-course meal - meat twice a week, fish once and vegetables the rest of the time. At four we are finished for the day. As a non-Aryan I must do my shopping at shops where I am registered between 4 and 5 pm. I manage to reach these shops just before closing time. By then nearly everything has been sold. I arrive home exhausted. We are paid by the hour - the men 75 pfennigs, the women 56 pfennigs. Even these are subject to deductions for unemployment and health insurance. Non-Aryans even suffer a further deduction of 15% for so-called 'reconstruction of Poland'. I receive 18 marks for a week's work. If it were not for my small savings I wouldn't even be able to pay the rent for my rooms. Clearly the conditions at the Siemens factory (whose name she does not mention in her published book) do not seem unduly harsh, and she had a decent manager who was not a Party member. They compare favourably with places like the Flick factory and Krupps, the directors of which were imprisoned as war crim? inals after the War. New anti-Jewish decrees followed - the wearing of the yellow star, curfew at 8 pm and the prohibition of telephones and wireless. Jewish ex-servicemen were forbidden to wear medals or decorations - a decree which, as she learnt, evoked strong protests from some Aryan soldiers. The yellow star was designed to make Jews conspicuous, and she learnt that several of her fellow workers were attacked on their way to work. Yet another decree forbade travel on trains and under? ground, so she had to walk long distances to and from work. Jews were also obliged to stand on buses and trams. She met Harriman again, this time at a party given at the American Embassy for a friend of hers who had married an embassy official. Harriman said that he had not forgotten his promise to help her, but that he had been abroad for his paper, covering the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. He now sug? gested that she escape with an Aryan passport which she could buy on the black market, and for which he would pay. This plan appeared to her too dangerous, but he persisted, telling her that all she lacked was confidence. Eventually he persuaded her to train herself to behave as if she were an Aryan. So during the next few weekends, minus her yellow star and ignoring the curfew, she went with him to theatres, cinemas, a football match and finally to exclusive restaur? ants where she mixed with leading Nazis. These excursions seem to have had the desired effect. A little later she heard from the US Consulate that her quota number had turned up and that as soon as she obtained the requisite tickets and permits she would be given a visa. There was a long waiting list for tickets, but eventually she found an Italian travel agent prepared to sell her one to America. It would cost three times the official price and payment must be made in dollars. Harriman agreed to supply the money. She then applied for and obtained an exit permit, train reservation, a release from the factory and a police certificate of good character. (This 279</page><page sequence="4">Charles Rubens declared that she was without outstanding debts or tax liabilities: an Unbedenklichkeitsbescheinigung) The formalities took two days, for which the factory gave her leave of absence. At the Consulate she was medically examined, finger-printed and finally interrogated by the Consul. When she said that her husband was in London, however, he said that he had to turn down her applica? tion as, under American law, a visa could not be granted to anyone with a close relative in a belligerent country. Harriman again came to her rescue; he managed to obtain a visa for Cuba, which must have been costly, after which she had to go through the same time consuming routine again - changing the tickets and the various permits - only to learn that a new decree had been issued prohibiting emigration to anyone aged under forty-six engaged in compulsory war-work. This was the last straw; soon after she had a heart attack. As a result of this she was given indefinite leave of absence by her ever-decent manager. An Aryan friend invited her to stay with her in her country home in the Bavarian Alps, a rare instance of help from an Aryan to a German Jew. There she spent a lengthy period of rest and recovery; but when she returned to Berlin she found that a new decree made it unlawful for a Jew to live in an 'Aryan house', defined as one belonging to an Aryan on i July 1938. In addition, Jews were now allowed a maximum space of 16 square metres. Moving had to be carried out at night so as not to interfere with slave labour, and a vast amount of surplus furniture was as a result thrown onto the market, to be bought by Nazis at negligible prices. With some difficulty she found out, however, that hers was not an Aryan house. Early in 1942, Jews had to report at the Synagogue in Oranienburg Strasse. Jews wearing official arm-bands were employed by the Reich to list those engaged in slave labour and to round up the rest for deportation, no doubt hoping that they would in this way escape deportation. The hope proved short? lived. She witnessed what was probably one of the first of these deportations, at which men, women and children were stripped of their possessions, bundled onto lorries and driven away. Many committed suicide. On one occasion her manager sent her to secure the release of two fellow-workers who had been selected for deportation in error. In December 1941, following Germany's declaration of war against the United States, all American citizens were detained, pending repatriation. Harriman managed to send a message to say that he had deposited with a friend a sum in dollars which was to be paid to the Italian travel agent only when she had signed a note acknowledging that he had found her a satisfactory passport. After one or two rejected offers he introduced an Italian lady, a Signora Borelli. She had red hair, but was otherwise not unlike Kaethe Cohn in appearance. She claimed to have influence with the Gestapo, which would enable her to obtain visas and permits for a visit to Rome via Switzerland. The pretext would be that she 280</page><page sequence="5">Kaethe Cohn's Escape from Berlin to London in 1942 wanted to attend the wedding of a cousin in Rome. The price she wanted was much more than the sum deposited by Harriman, but after some haggling she accepted two Persian carpets and a fur coat to make up the difference. Kaethe Cohn then made efforts to look like the passport photograph of Signora Borelli, going to a hairdresser at night to dye her hair red, risking the yellow star and curfew. Next day at the factory she wore a scarf around her head and claimed to have a skin infection. The Italian had arranged a meeting for the following day, at which he would hand her the passport. But at this point an incident occurred which might have had serious consequences. She received a visit from a police officer who accused her of having failed to comply with an official letter. Her friend Vera Hofstatter had died in a concentration camp and had left a request that her friend Kaethe Cohn should bury her ashes. The police letter ordered her to comply with this request. Kaethe Cohn said that she had not received such a letter, and at length managed to persuade the officer to leave. She then went to the Jewish Communal Centre and arranged for them to take over the task of burying her friend's ashes. This seems a strange incident, for it is unclear why the civil police should be concerned to carry out the last wishes of a concentration-camp inmate while others were carrying out the 'Final Solution'. The following day she met the Italian and the Signora, but after a careful inspection they decided that she did not sufficiently resemble the passport photo. The Italian proposed instead to have her photo taken and to substitute it for that in the passport. This would need the Consular die-stamp, but he had a friend at the Italian Consulate who would have access to the stamping machine the following Saturday, when he would be there alone on fire-watching duty. He would of course have to be paid for his trouble, yet she had no more money. Eventually he agreed to accept a quantity of linen. She went to a photographer, again at night and risking the breach of the curfew and yellow-star decrees, and had her photograph taken. This was on Friday 17 February 1942, and the Swiss entry visa would expire at midday on Monday 20 February. Although she was extremely ill she could not risk any delay. So she went to a Jewish doctor to obtain a certificate to account for her proposed absence from the factory. He tried to persuade her to stay in hospital when he found that she had a serious heart condition. But she firmly refused and he reluctantly gave her the certificate, which she posted to the factory. She then carefully burnt all her papers, packed a few belongings and deposited her luggage at the railway station. She had arranged to meet the Italian at the station the following afternoon to collect the passport, but he arrived very late in a state of great excitement and rushed her off to his flat. 'Madam,' he said, 'my friend at the Consulate and I have worked for hours but we cannot get the new die-stamps to fit the old ones. You cannot have this passport for any money.' His wife, who was listening, told 281</page><page sequence="6">Charles Rubens him to calm down; she was sure that her uncle Ruggero, a former picture restorer, could repair the damage. She could not leave until the following day, Sunday, when there was a night train for Rome which would arrive back at Basel early on Monday morning. When the passport returned from uncle Ruggero it was clear that he had removed most of the old die stamps, but the paper had been worn thin and was discoloured on the back of the photo page, which he had attempted to conceal by smudging ink over the damaged portion. It was decided that the passport was good enough, and the Italian advised her to open it at the photo page and sit on it so that it would spring open naturally at that page and divert attention from the smudged one. She then signed a note releas? ing the money deposited by Harriman to the Italian. When the train arrived the Italian conducted her to a corner seat in a first-class compartment and chatted to her in Italian about imaginary friends in Rome. She just answered 'Si'; only a few days earlier she had procured an Italian primer to learn a few words and phrases of Italian. Various people entered the compartment, and facing her were an SS Officer, a businessman reading a fin? ancial paper and an elderly man who looked very ill. As the train started an army officer entered and after an exchange of 'Heil Hitlers', proceeded to exam? ine papers. She proffered her passport, but he waved it aside saying he was looking for deserters. As she had been advised, she surreptitiously opened her passport at the photo page and sat on it. At Frankfurt an elderly man entered and sat beside her. He told her he was touring Switzerland as manager of a ballet company, but she cut him short saying that she had a headache. Another man entered and sat opposite her. He seemed to be watching her closely, and talked loudly about Aryans and inferior races. 'There are even some Jews', he said, 'who manage to look like Aryans, but I can always detect them'. She suspected that he was a Gestapo spy, and to calm herself, went to the lavatory and swallowed two luminal tablets. She returned to her seat feeling better. At Weile, the last stop before Basel, the train was reduced to two coaches. Three officials boarded the train and she had another attack of nerves, but man? aged to remain calm. The door opened and a Gestapo officer entered: 'Heil Hitler - passport control'. The man opposite, who had been watching her, asked: 'What has happened to the ballet manager?' 'Oh', said the Gestapo officer, 'he is a fraud. He will be handed over at the frontier'. Her suspicion that the man opposite was a spy had been confirmed. Trying to look unconcerned, she handed the officer her passport. It duly opened at the photo page. He glanced at the photo, examined the Swiss transit visa, the German exit visa and re-entry permit, and then looked at the other pages. All the time she felt she was being watched by the man opposite. To cover her nervousness she asked, 'Will I have to change trains at Basel?' There was no reply. He continued to look at the photo page and called his assistant. 282</page><page sequence="7">Kaethe Cohn's Escape from Berlin to London in 1942 'Look at this', he said. 'There is something curious here.' They continued their examination. 'Try lifting the edge of the photo. Perhaps we should have it more thoroughly examined at Basel', said the other. 'No, I think the die-stamp must have slipped.' After agonizing moments the officer addressed her: 'Do you understand German?' 'Yes, I was born in Berlin.' 'On your return to Germany you must go to your Consul and get a new passport. You will have nothing but trouble with this one. The die-stamp is in the wrong place and there is a bad mess at the back of the photo page. We would never allow a German to travel with a passport in such a state. Heil Hitler.' He saluted and they both departed. She still had to be careful. The man opposite was watching her and there might be a further examination at the frontier. In fact, the only other controls were for newspapers and magazines, which were confiscated, and for money; only 10 marks could be taken out of Germany. A Swiss porter took her luggage, they walked across the frontier and she boarded the train to Zurich, arriving in the late afternoon. She was by then in a state of exhaustion and of worry, an illegal immigrant with a false passport and in danger, she thought, of being deported to Germany. She sat on a seat, not knowing where to go, and burst into tears. Eventually an elderly doctor entered into conversation with her and took her to the office of the Jewish Refugee Organization. The scene that followed can best be described in her own words: 'Where did you say you come from', the young man at the desk asked. 'I repeat. Berlin.' 'When were you last in Berlin?' 'I told you; yesterday.' He looked enquiringly at the doctor. 'Yes', said the doctor, 'That is exactly where she comes from - Berlin.' He rushed off and told the rest of the staff They all came and regarded me in amazement. Miss Wagner, the welfare officer, took me to her room. I told her all the details of my escape and asked for assistance in order to get to London as soon as possible. 'But my dear', said Miss Wagner, 'first of all what are we to say to the authorities to explain your illegal entry? It is an offence, you know.' 'But what have you done for other refugees?' 'Switzerland', Miss Wagner replied, 'has many refugees, but they are mainly Austrians who escaped when Hitler marched into Austria. Since the outbreak of war no one has escaped from the hell over there so far as we know.' One wonders whether Miss Wagner was being disingenuous. She must have known that many Jews had indeed managed to cross the German-Swiss frontier but had been immediately apprehended by the Swiss Police and sent back, just as would have happened to Kaethe Cohn had she been travelling on her own passport. The immediate problem was to find someone who could vouch for her iden 283</page><page sequence="8">Charles Rubens tity. By a stroke of luck she was recognized by a doctor working at the Refugee Organization, who had been a colleague of her husband's and had emigrated to Switzerland before the war. In due course she was granted a stateless person's passport and permission to stay in Switzerland indefinitely. She was then able to send a cable to her husband, who cabled back to express his delight and to send her money. After all the stress and danger she was in a very poor state of health. The Committee sent her to a sanatorium for several months of recuperation and urged her to stay in Switzerland for the duration of the war, but she insisted that she wanted to join her husband in London. The only route was by train through Vichy France to Spain, thence to Lisbon and on to London by air. Such a journey must have been hazardous, but she devotes merely a couple of sentences to it: 'With legitimate papers, complete with my own photo and all necessary visas, I am finally on my way, changing from trains to aeroplane until I land in England. I land right into the arms of my husband!' The account of her journey to me was very different from her published version. She told me how she travelled through Vichy France to Spain in a sealed compartment accompanied by a Swiss official. This, which must have cost a great deal of money, was presumably paid for by the Jewish Refugee Organization. She also suppresses the fact that she was detained and questioned on her arrival in Britain. Although she was happy to have escaped from Germany, she had a feeling of profound melancholy at the probable fate of the friends she had left behind in Berlin, including her mother, whom she is careful not to mention in print. In fact, her mother survived the War by assuming the identity of a deceased Aryan woman and by living what she called an 'underground life'; but that is another story.2 She ended her book with these words: Often in sleepless nights I think of my friends in Berlin; are they still working at the factory, or have they been driven away to their final death? Oh, if only I could take them with me on a walk through the London of today; if only they could see with their own eyes that there still exists a world of moral values where law, liberty, joy and hope are upheld, true to the democratic tradition. An indescribable feeling of gratitude and elation invades me when, now and then called upon by the German Section of the BBC to do so, I stand in front of the micro? phone to say a few words of encouragement and hope. And remembering my own days of listening to the forbidden wireless, I can see the shadowy figures of the survivors turn to each other, whispering 'Listen, it can't be long now'. She died in 1981, some time after her husband. They had no children. The motives of Harriman, the American journalist, turned out to be less pure than they might appear from her book. After the War he demanded a sum of 284</page><page sequence="9">Kaethe Cohn's Escape front Berlin to London in 1942 money from the Cohns that was far beyond their means. It was impossible to estimate the full amount due to him, but after some acrimonious correspondence I was able to help them reach a reasonable settlement and to obtain the necessary Exchange Control permission. The help which she received from Harriman was, of course, invaluable, but in the final analysis it was her own courage and resourcefulness which enabled her to achieve her successful escape. NOTES i Catherine Klein [Kaethe Cohn], Escape from Berlin, trans. Livia Laurent (London: Victor Gollancz, February 1944). 2 Ida Gassenheimer, Mein Untergrund Leben in Berlin ['My Underground Life in Berlin', by the mother of Kaethe Cohn] Wiener Library, London. 285</page></plain_text>