An intimate and profoundly moving Jewish family history—a story of displacement, prejudice, hope, despair, and love.
In this luminous memoir, award-winning New York Times columnist Roger Cohen turns a compassionate yet discerning eye on the legacy of his own forebears. As he follows them across continents and decades, mapping individual lives that diverge and intertwine, vital patterns of struggle and resilience, valued heritage and evolving loyalties (religious, ethnic, national), converge into a resonant portrait of cultural identity in the modern age.
Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through to the present day, Cohen tracks his family’s story of repeated upheaval, from Lithuania to South Africa, and then to England, the United States, and Israel. It is a tale of otherness marked by overt and latent anti-Semitism, but also otherness as a sense of inheritance. We see Cohen’s family members grow roots in each adopted homeland even as they struggle to overcome the loss of what is left behind and to adapt—to the racism his parents witness in apartheid-era South Africa, to the familiar ostracism an uncle from Johannesburg faces after fighting against Hitler across Europe, to the ambivalence an Israeli cousin experiences when tasked with policing the occupied West Bank.
At the heart of The Girl from Human Street is the powerful and touching relationship between Cohen and his mother, that “girl.” Tortured by the upheavals in her life yet stoic in her struggle, she embodies her son’s complex inheritance.
Graceful, honest, and sweeping, Cohen’s remarkable chronicle of the quest for belonging across generations contributes an important chapter to the ongoing narrative of Jewish life.
In a lyrical, digressive tracking of mental illness in his far-flung family, New York Times columnist Cohen (Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis Final Gamble) explores the tentacles of repressed memory in Jewish identity. Cohen's grandparents on both sides came from Lithuanian shtetls and migrated at the end of the 19th century to South Africa. From modest beginnings as grocers and roving peddlers, they gradually prospered as business leaders and professionals in Johannesburg, far from the calamity of Nazi Germany. Cohen's father, a doctor in Krugersdorp, settled in London after WWII, bringing his South African wife, June, n e Adler; assimilation was the rule of the day, and the horrors of Auschwitz were not discussed. "Better to look forward, work hard, say little," Cohen, born in the mid-1950s, writes. Paralyzing depression dogged his mother, requiring hospitalization and electroconvulsive therapy, and she made several suicide attempts over the years. Her manic depression was shared by other members of the family, which Cohen traces to being "tied to... a Jewish odyssey of the 20th century, and the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing, and forgetting." Cohen writes eloquently of the great looming irony of apartheid for the once similarly persecuted, now privileged Jews of South African, as well as the divisive oppression in Israel. Thoughtful, wide-ranging, he muses on his own migrations spurred by "buried truths."