Kohn, 86, recalled the 1938 Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass,” in which more than 1,000 synagogues were destroyed and Jewish stores were ransacked. Nazi Stormtroopers arrested thousands of Jewish men between 16 and 60, including Kohn’s father, who spent several weeks in a concentration camp and was only released because he had a certificate proving that he fought on the front lines for Germany in World War I. With the help of an employee at the British consulate in Frankfurt, the Kohns were able to escape to England in 1939 and, in 1940, the United States.
“The whole world was bystanders when this terrible event happened,” Kohn said. “We must continue to teach that all of us cannot afford to be bystanders when this is going on.”
After his family became farmers in Demopolis, Ala., Kohn volunteered for the U.S. Army when he turned 18 in 1945. While he wanted to fight for his new country against the country that took away his citizenship, Kohn was disappointed when Germany surrendered just two days after he arrived.
“Everybody celebrated, but I cried because I couldn’t fight the Nazis who did so much damage to my family and friends,” he said.
After serving for two years in Germany, Kohn returned to the United States, where he joined the Army Reserves and graduated with an agriculture degree from Auburn University. He turned his ag degree into a career as a certified public accountant (something he joked could only be done with the opportunity afforded in America), then became an executive with a company that built houses for first-time home buyers. He has made a point of speaking to schools, civic and religious groups about his experience.
David and Beverly Schrenger of Smyrna said they traveled to Holocaust museums in Washington and Amsterdam, but it was special to hear from somebody who actually lived through the terror.
Beverly Schrenger said she was most moved when Kohn talked of the Stormtroopers banging on the door and taking his father away.
“I could only imagine how horrible that is for a child,” she said.
David Schrenger said he was surprised how quickly the Nazis were able to turn the population against the Jews, with Kohn’s former friends calling him names and beating him up within days after getting orders from Adolf Hitler’s government. And doing so all for no reason.
Rhandi Finch of Kennesaw, a junior at Georgia State University, said Kohn’s hour-long speech was an eye-opener on how people should treat others in their daily lives.
“People focus on minor things when there’s other more important things to be focused on,” she said.
The event was co-sponsored by Congregation Ner Tamid, a west Cobb reform-based synagogue, KSU Hillel and the Museum of History & Holocaust Education, which is located just outside the KSU Center room where Kohn spoke.
Congregation member Matt Berenson said it is important to educate the public on the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews and millions others were killed, so nothing like it can happen again.
“Ten years from now, there’s going to be a generation gone that won’t be able to speak,” he said. “That message has to be passed on by us.”