Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family by Roger Cohen, review: 'brave and enlightened'
Miranda Seymour admires a turbulent history of a Jewish family in which the Zagare genocide looms large
In 2012, Roger Cohen returned to the Lithuanian village in which – 70 years after the mass slaughter of Zagare’s Jewish population – a plaque was finally to be unveiled. That commemoration offered the first public acknowledgement that local Lithuanians had collaborated with their German overlords in this hideous massacre. Among the 625 children who died just outside Zagare, the tiniest had their heads smashed against trees in deep woods. Here, a mass grave was intended to bury all evidence of the atrocity. Ever practical, the killers had noted that head-smashing would save on ammunition costs.
Cohen’s grandmother Polly grew up in Zagare. Settled with her family in South Africa in the earliest years of the 20th century, Polly preserved innocent memories of summertime walks through the Lithuanian forests. But she never returned to her homeland, and it’s unclear how much she would have known of the horrors that later took place, in October 1941, deep within the enchanted woodlands of her childhood.
Roger Cohen is an eminent journalist and a wonderful storyteller. Linked to Lithuania through his forebears, he places the Zagare genocide at the centre of his three-generational history of a Jewish family that chose different homelands in which to bury or, for those who moved to Israel, confront a past whose silent hold upon them could never, Cohen argues, be loosened.
South Africa, as Cohen is quick to indicate, offered a persecuted and displaced people one distinct advantage. “Thank God for the blacks,” was the favourite saying of a Cohen elder. “If not for them, it would be us.” Jews, back in the heady early years of mining for gold, could make a fortune in the Cape. They could transform themselves, emulating the old-fashioned splendours of an English squire. Cohen’s Lithuanian grandfather, Isaac Michel, founded the chain of general stores OK Bazaars, built himself a chateau and created a lavish country estate, complete with imported English gardener and two Irish setters. The African servants who waited on Michel’s family at table – their black hands sheathed within white gloves – were housed in small concrete boxes behind their employer’s handsome abode.
Back in the Thirties, the benevolent welcome of Jewish refugees to South Africa became tempered by the fear that they would grow too populous. By the Fifties, with the insidious expansion of apartheid, attitudes had changed. The Jews, it was perceived, would side with the whites, bolstering the supremacists’ hold over the country they had so richly exploited. When Rabbi Ungar, arriving in South Africa from London in 1955, remarked upon the similarity under apartheid to the ways in which Jews had once been banned from stores, benches and parks back in his native Budapest, his outspoken words earned the would-be reformer a swift expulsion. Roger Cohen’s parents, a brilliant young doctor and his lively, liberal-minded wife, left for England shortly afterwards, governed by ethical principle, but also by fear of what lay ahead for those who seemed to endorse apartheid’s brutal laws.
June Cohen, the author’s mother, was 28 when she arrived in London in 1957. The following year, with her husband’s consent, she received a course of ECT in a grim hospital that sounds like something out of Gormenghast. Early ECT treatment applied harsh electrically charged jolts to the most fragile of troubled psyches. Occasionally, such therapy worked. In June Cohen’s case, it did not.
His mother’s dreadful struggle with manic depression burns at the dark heart of this book. Cohen’s love for her is as apparent as his boundless sadness for a woman whose uncompromising devotion to her family warred against the temptation of “the cajoling voice in her ear”: the wish for death.
June’s husband, a brilliant but emotionally uncommunicative doctor, hid anguish behind euphemisms: “somewhat euphoric” was how he once recorded the onset of a manic phase. The family, struggling for normality, was finally awed by the courage and even gaiety with which June Cohen embraced the torments of a cancer that brought a lingering death.
Roger Cohen’s tribute to his mother is immensely moving. However, in seeking to connect her mental condition to the Jewish heritage – “the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing and forgetting” – his book seems to miss a step. June, we learn, was one of the six children of Isaac Michel, the Lithuanian-born department store magnate. Three of the siblings became depressives; three did not. (Isaac himself suffered only, we are told, from a blind spot about marital fidelity.) The possibility is never explored that Michel’s Newcastle-born and non-Lithuanian wife may have bequeathed a genetic disorder to her children.
A minor chord of doubt is sounded by Cohen’s decision to yoke a personal family tragedy to the author’s liberal-minded unease about whether, in Vikram Seth’s words, a chosen people have the right to decide who shall be unchosen. But on this – a topic most directly addressed when Cohen visits his Israeli relatives – The Girl from Human Street has important things to say, things that can perhaps only be said by a Jewish author. Cohen’s book is brave, honourable and enlightened. It is also beautifully written.