By Franklin Fisher (Benning)April 26, 2019
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Just a day before Germany's surrender in World War II, a U.S. cavalry unit liberated a Nazi concentration camp in Austria, and what Maj. Aaron Cohn saw there profoundly shaped the rest of his life, his daughter told an audience at a Holocaust remembrance observance at Fort Benning April 24.
Gail Cohn recounted her father's story at a Days of Remembrance observance inside McGinnis-Wickam Hall's Derby Auditorium.
Her father, a first-generation Jewish-American who was born and raised in Columbus, Georgia, served throughout the war in Europe, resumed law practice after the war, and eventually became the longest-serving juvenile court judge in the nation. He died in 2012 at age 96.
Cohn was serving as operations officer with the 3rd Cavalry Group when, on May 6, 1945, elements of the 3rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron liberated the Ebensee concentration camp, a satellite of the Mauthausen camp. The troops reported finding about 16,000 "political prisoners" at Ebensee, from a variety of nations, including the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, France and Italy. About a third were Jewish.
Later that day, Cohn arrived at the camp.
"And he sees about 100 survivors standing there in filth, in their prison-stripe uniforms," Gail Cohn told the audience.
Some in the camp were naked, others dead, she said.
"The odor of feces and urine is unbearable. And the stench of the sick, the smell of the dead -- it haunts him for the rest of his life."
The prisoners eyed Cohn, who was in combat gear that included a .45 caliber pistol in a shoulder holster
"And the prisoners, they shrunk back in fear," Gail Cohn said.
To dispel their fears, Cohn told them who he was -- using Yiddish, a language derived from German that was widely spoken by Jews of Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.
"He tells them in Yiddish, 'Nein, I'm not an SS trooper, I'm an Amerikaner major,'" Gail Cohn said.
"And then he tells them, 'And I'm you. I'm Jewish.'"
"With that," she continued, "they wept, they kissed his feet, they tore his clothes, they tried to lift him, but they were too weak."
Cohn was there for several days and a prisoner asked that once back in the United States Cohn tell others of what he'd seen.
Cohn promised he would.
What Cohn saw during the war, including Ebensee, had lifelong impact, his daughter told the audience.
"He was forever changed by what he saw," she said. "And it stayed with him for the rest of his days.
"One of the lessons that he talked about often was that we have to speak out against injustice," Gail Cohn said of her father. "We have to be steadfast in preserving justice, in fighting for justice, we have to take care of this democratic country of ours, we have to fight for the common good."
Another thing he would do often when talking with people after the war, she said, was to tell them about German theologian and Protestant pastor Rev. Martin Niemoller, who was imprisoned by the Nazis for opposing their efforts to Nazify the Protestant churches.
Niemöller wrote a poem which has become famous, and during her presentation she paraphrased it, while the text was displayed on a projection screen behind her:
"First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
"Prejudices are learned, and prejudices can be unlearned," she said. "Six million Jews were murdered in the Second World War. Millions of non-Jews were murdered. And all because they were victims of some policy of hatred.
"I like to paraphrase this quote, because I believe it: 'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.'
"These are the lessons that Aaron internalized and demonstrated, because these were the lessons that had been reinforced in him in the Holocaust," she said.
Cohn's parents were immigrants who fled anti-Jewish violence in Russia in 1906.
He received his law degree from the University of Georgia in 1938 and was admitted to the bar the same year, and in 1940 volunteered for the Army, became a cavalry officer, and remained on active duty until 1946. He then served 30 years in the U.S. Army Reserve and retired as a colonel. He served 46 years as a judge.
At the National Infantry Museum outside Fort Benning, a Holocaust Exhibit was established in 2012 and is dedicated to Cohn's memory. The exhibit, in the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, spotlights the 35 American Infantry and Armor units that liberated German concentration camps at the end of World War II.
Staff Sgt. Samuel Wentz attended the observance and said afterwards that drawing lessons from history is important.
"History doesn't need to be forgotten," said Wentz, a platoon sergeant with the 1st Squadron, 16th Cavalry Regiment, 316th Cavalry Brigade. The brigade hosted the observance.
"It's something we need to really remember and make sure others understand, as history can and will repeat itself at some point. We just need to learn from the past, with the commemorative events."