|Introduction by Werner V. Cohen
There is a story about a Chasidic Rebbe. A congregant came to ask the
holy man for a blessing. The Rabbi refused, saying, “It is not my blessing
you want, or need. Go to that man with the number tattooed on his arm and
ask him for a blessing.” The man he pointed to was a survivor of the
There is a human need to pray, a yearning for connection, an urge to ask
for healing, for comfort, for peace. After the Holocaust, many would say
that there is now proof that prayer is futile.
Then there are those, who, having survived loss and terror, pain and
suffering beyond imagining, still are able to pray, are able to hold onto
faith and trust in G-d and in G-d's love for us.
What you will read here are the writings of my wife, Hilda Stern Cohen.
They are poems and prose pieces composed and written during the years of and
shortly following Hitler’s decimation of European Jewry. Hilda lived through
agony and despair. Her writing depicts and describes the struggles of her
body and her soul during that time.
I did not know these writings existed. I knew that she had written
poetry, that she was gifted with words, but not that she had kept her
writings from that time. I found them after her death.
As I look at them now, I try to reconcile the words here with the woman
who shared my life and home for almost 50 years. Her poetry can stand on its
own. Her mastery of the German language is extraordinary and the metaphors
she chooses are breathtaking. But I believe that reading her poetry in the
context of the real and the mundane of human life--knowing a little of how
she interacted with the everyday--will make the context of her faith
illuminate her words. It is my hope, my own prayer, that you who will read
her words will be somehow changed through “knowing” her.
Hilda came from a traditional Jewish home. Her family observed all of the
laws and commandments. Some were visible and obvious, eating only kosher
foods, observing the Sabbath and holy days, her father praying each morning
with t’fillin (phylacteries). Some were less visibly, but just as clearly
expressions of Jewish teachings and values. They lived with and
unquestioningly cared for her father’s mentally handicapped sister. They
graciously entertained visiting relatives who often came to the countryside
to visit, sometimes for extended periods.
Her childhood experience was reinforced and expanded in the ILBA, the
Jewish teacher’s seminary in Würzburg, where she delved into the core belief
of traditional Judaism, that we live our lives in relationship to a higher
force, grounded in mutual commitment with G-d. We participate in that
relationship by observing the mitzvot (commandments) and engaging in good
deeds (ma'asim tovim). Hilda understood that a Jewish life is not just about
indulging our appetites, but about putting “self” into service of a higher
mission. The path (Derech) that an orthodox Jew follows is demanding. But
Hilda saw its essential rewards. Being connected spiritually, intimately
with G-d is life-giving, energy-giving. It has sustained the Jewish people
beyond loss of land, country, livelihood, even life. The energy,
intelligence and competence of the Jewish people find their wellspring in
In her writings, Hilda does not specifically address the philosophy of
Judaism, but each poem and essay seems to me to be set in the context that I
saw her living each day. Hilda, knowing the treasure that is contained in
Judaism, was able to help me to appreciate Jewish observance. Even so,
because I was not taught about Jewish practice, I felt no obligation to
perform many mitzvot that are required of a Jewish male. Hilda took it upon
herself to perform the spiritual “work” of our family, thus establishing our
family’s link to the Jewish past and future. Her commitment was complete.
She was that rare person who lived her own agenda, but did not “promote”
it. She welcomed conversation, learning from and teaching all who sought her
out. People who interacted with her felt bigger, stronger, validated. She
knew how to listen for the best in everyone.
As I now read her writings and remember the experiences she related of
her time in Germany, I see the continuity of the strength of her spirit and
her determination to do what is right. She showed total decency even in
actions that were counter-instinctual. In the Ghetto of Lodz she gave food
to others who were starving when she herself was starving. She fought for
her own survival, but never at the expense of others.
Yet she does not judge. She describes the desperation and despair of Jews turning against Jews--because of the Nazi “beast” outside the walls of the ghetto, or within the fences of Auschwitz--and she does not judge. Though she admires the heroism of those who simply refused to be cruel, she says that “In the end, I have to be grateful, grateful, really, that I was never in a position to do anyone harm.” She suggests: “You can look into the abyss that is within yourself…This humanity that we all share is for us to deal with, to look at, and then transform it, and to make it into something that’s noble.” Hilda was able to do just that, to take the essence of her own humanity, both the gifts and the struggles, and through her writing and even more importantly, through her life, to transform it into something that was and is noble.