Braille Monitor                                                                                                        May 2004

(back) (next) (contents)

An Adolescence in Crisis

by Hans Cohn

Hans Cohn officially launching the Holocaust Memorial Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London in February of 2002.
Hans Cohn officially launching the Holocaust Memorial Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London in February of 2002.

From the Editor: Hans Cohn is well known to many Federationists, having attended several national conventions. He addressed its CEIP Committee forum in Dallas in 1991. He was particularly friendly with the late Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who spent a day relaxing in Hans's house and garden during his last European trip. In the United Kingdom Hans has been a volunteer and activist in the blindness field most of his life, as a member of the Royal National Institute for (now of) the Blind and its standing committees since 1973, International Officer of the NFB of the UK between 1984 and 1996, and editor of Viewpoint, the NFB-UK's journal, since 1982.

As many of us know, adjusting to blindness is a challenge. Coping with the growing anti-Semitism of Germany during the 1930's was a nightmare for all who endured it. In the following memoir Hans Cohn recounts what it was like to deal with the two crises simultaneously as a teenager. Here is his story:

This piece of writing is not spontaneous; nobody spontaneously chooses to recall memories that are bound to be painful. Moreover, too much repetitive material has already been written and published about the experiences of blind people. Nothing equals Jacques Lusseyran's book And There Was Light; it displays a spiritual equanimity unmatched in the literature. However, perhaps my experiences are sufficiently singular to throw light on the problems of blind people of a certain age and may be of interest for that reason.

The Early Years

I was born in 1923, the only child of a well-to-do Berlin lawyer. My father was a stalwart member of the Central Union of German Citizens of the Jewish Persuasion, a civic organization whose members professed a strong loyalty to the state which sometimes exceeded that to their faith. He had been a front-line soldier throughout World War I, finishing up as a lieutenant with the Iron Cross. We belonged to the Liberal Jewish community, which meant that we observed the Jewish festivals and attended weekend services at the local synagogue down the road in which we lived, but my father worked on Saturday mornings, and we did not keep kosher.

I was born with what is considered to be normal sight, although I had to wear glasses for myopia from the age of eight. I had a slight hearing defect which worried my parents, until one day I heard a specialist say to them, "Forget that he is your only child"; it certainly did not affect any of my normal activities. Perhaps I was spoilt inasmuch as I had no sibling with whom to share my parents' affections, but I grew up with a fair smattering of German-style discipline and would call myself a conformist rather than a rebel. I received my elementary education, from age six to ten, from a private rather than a public school, perhaps because it was just across the river Spree on whose banks our block of flats stood, but more likely because by the end of the 1920's anti-Semitism was beginning to rear its ugly head ever more prominently under the influence of the Nazi party, which was on the rise.

Blindness and Hitler's Accession to Power

I choose the above subheading because unquestionably those two events not only were intimately connected but encapsulate the future events that shaped my life. Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933. I heard his storm troops tramp past the hospital in which I was recovering from a minor operation. That was the year my parents had to find a Gymnasium, a grammar school in which I would continue my education. Because my father had been an active soldier in the First War, we were exempt from the government decree forbidding Jewish children from attending Aryan schools. They chose a school which had been founded by the Great Elector of Brandenburg and future first king of Prussia in 1686 to accommodate the influx of French Huguenots after the abolition of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV, which ended religious toleration in France.

Their reasons were twofold: 1) though German, the school had a lot of diplomatic pupils, children of ambassadors resident in Berlin--the son of the French ambassador among them—and they hoped that this would protect the Jewish pupils from the worst excesses of discrimination; 2) they reckoned that fluency in a foreign language would stand me in good stead. The school taught French intensively for the first three years, after which French itself, Latin, history, and geography were taught in French.

My early days at the school were untroubled. Before the decrees of 1935 anti-Jewish measures were introduced gradually in order not to alarm the foreign community while the regime was still establishing itself.

Then came one fine day in September of 1934. I was sitting in my assigned place in the school assembly hall waiting for some official occasion. Next to me was another Jewish boy in my class. Suddenly he was physically attacked by a classmate in a brown uniform, the symbol of the Hitler Youth. In the subsequent fight between them—in the early years of the Nazi regime Jews had not yet learnt that passive submission to any humiliation inflicted was the best course of action—I received a direct blow to my left eye. I was cleaning my glasses at the time, a crucial factor because, had I had them on, the blow might have shattered the glass and possibly injured my face, but the glass would most likely have warded off the worst of the damage to the eye. As it was, the blow caused an internal hemorrhage, which detached the retina.

The attacker was the son of a high official in the Nazi party, and the possible political ramifications convinced several eminent ophthalmic specialists not to get involved with my case—a fine example of adherence to the Hippocratic oath! Among those that did examine me, there was a division of opinion, some saying that operative procedures should be undertaken immediately, others that the surgery should wait until the blood had dispersed.

Eventually the eye physician to the Dutch royal family, Professor Wewe, agreed to operate immediately, and my mother and I were shipped off to what turned out to be a four-week stay at his university clinic in Utrecht. The two surgical procedures I underwent there were probably the most traumatic experiences of my life. Being wheeled fully conscious into a brightly lit room full of strange gadgetry, surrounded by people dressed from head to foot in black (the color of death in Western culture), not understanding the language, having things done without previous explanation—all this would be bad enough experiences for anyone, but I was a child of eleven.

The first step of the operation, the injection of a local anaesthetic into my eye (a general was out of the question because in those days one vomited after waking up, and the success of the operation depended on complete prostration for a week) destroyed whatever courage remained. My tantrums went into overdrive, and I had to be physically restrained by several people throughout the operation, which consisted of cauterization of the eyeball, literally burning a piece out of it in the hope that the stretched retina would re-attach. It felt like having a burning cigarette held to my eye for minutes on end.

Needless to say, the operations were a failure: you cannot keep an eleven-year-old lying completely still for days on end without medical personnel to cover. My mother was with me during the day, but I was left alone at night. No wonder, then, that one morning they found me with my head at the foot of the bed.

They decided on a second operation, and my pitiable lamentations before it was performed must have further jeopardized my recovery. Blindness of the right eye followed a year later from sympathetic ophthalmia, which could have been prevented by removing the injured eye immediately.

The effect of my total blindness on my parents was shattering. The first thing my father did was to remove me from Hebrew lessons to prepare me for my Bar Mitzvah: How could a just God do this to a child! The only advice they had from the Berlin professor who treated me at the time was that, apart from the traditional occupations such as brush making and chair caning, there were the slightly more prestigious professions of perfume smelling or chocolate tasting.

On me the effect of sight loss was negligible. The headmaster of my school felt responsible because the initial accident had occurred at his school, so he arranged for me to continue attending; I must have been one of the first recipients of mainstream education. My resource teacher was my father, whose clientele was by now contracting. I attended school in the mornings, did the written work in Braille that German students are often set to do in class under supervision, took it home to type, and handed it in the next day. Because my marks remained roughly the same as they had been before, the teachers trusted that I had received no help.

All my spare time seemed to be taken up acquiring new skills, such as learning and practicing Braille and typing, so I had no time to get depressed. Of course I lost all my friends because they didn't know what to do with me. I continued being sheltered and perhaps spoilt. My father was legal adviser to one of Berlin's theaters and a friend of Max Reinhardt, who revolutionized the German stage between the two world wars. Among his clients were some of the leading actors of stage and screen, and they liked to pamper me, probably to curry favor with him.

In any case, adapting to altered circumstances is infinitely easier at a young age. But undoubtedly the main reason that I did not suffer from depression was the deteriorating situation of the Jews in the mid-thirties. After 1935 we had all our rights as citizens progressively removed, which meant, for instance, that we had no expectation of legal redress against any civic wrong. My family was never personally molested in the streets as long as I was there because we were not conspicuous. Middle-class people who, unless they were party officials or members, remained indifferent to the regime and its racial excesses were mainly the people who occupied the block of flats where we lived. What happened after I left, my mother always refused to tell me.

New Horizons

By 1937 my parents, after desperately trying various quack cures to improve my remaining vision, came to accept that I would be totally blind and that I needed to attend a special institution to acquire the skills to equip me for a meaningful existence. The school at Marburg refused to accept me as a Jew, and by now it was becoming clear which way things were going for Jews in Germany. By now I was fluent in French, but somehow my parents learned only about French schools for the blind under monastic control. Nobody told them about the Institut National, which is secular. This was just as well, perhaps, because I would have been unlikely to survive to tell this tale. We were all beginning to learn English by now, and our teacher was a blind man who, knowing of our predicament, described in glowing terms the school he had attended. This was Worcester College, which prepared pupils for entry to Oxford or Cambridge University.

In May of 1938 I departed for England with my mother, who went only to deliver me safely to my new school. Here was my second crisis, psychological rather than physical—away from home and family for the first time I was plunged into a strange, unknown environment. Once again I let the experience pass over me without panicking. It was just one of those things that had to be if life was going to continue.

My first term was anything but promising. The headmaster was in his last term and wasn't about to be bothered over a new arrival. He put me in the senior dormitory—a fifteen-year-old with boys of eighteen and over, and didn't they just take it out of me! My poor English and general helplessness were prime targets for bullying, which is what boys love doing, especially in a crowd. The sexual innuendos that have been reported in English boys' boarding schools at that time certainly went on at Worcester, but they got short shrift from me, if only because I was totally ignorant of what they wanted.

Worse still, they goaded me with the exploits of a Nazi boy who had been there just before me and had splashed his money around, while I didn't have a bean. Because this was the last term of that school year, I didn't have to attend classes regularly, which meant that I could concentrate on my English. Most of my fellow students were anxious that the first words I learned and used were a select few beginning with the letter B, but I was lucky in sharing a common room with a boy of nineteen who was at the school to get used to recently acquired visual impairment prior to going up to Oxford to read English. He provided some balance to my growing vocabulary.

I went home to Germany for the summer holidays in the company of one of my teachers whom my parents had invited to stay with us. Then, during the fall term, Kristallnacht1 took place. If I had gone home at Christmas, I could not have been sure they would let me out again. So the headmaster had to appeal to the families of the students for someone to take me in for the Christmas holidays. I spent them at the home of a boy rather younger than me whose father was a butcher. What I remember most about that tine was eating well and learning to kiss my friend's female cousins under the mistletoe.

My mother came to England for good in February 1939, and I spent the rest of my holidays from school with her. It must have been a terrible wrench for my parents to break up a happy marriage because they felt that at least one of them should be in England to look after me. To my shame I never fully appreciated this sacrifice or expressed my thanks to my mother, to whom I did not relate well. I have inherited her sense of duty, of obligations to be discharged.

She tried hard to get my father out of Germany in time, but as a lawyer he had no prospect of finding work abroad, and the policy of offering asylum to victims of persecution was not as well established then as it is today. Besides, he wanted to go on paying my school fees, which he could do only from Germany. Even after the outbreak of war he could still do this through the International Red Cross. In 1941 he was rewarded for his patriotism by being deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he died a year later—according to the official report, "from the consequences of a medical experiment." He was a wonderful man with a wide humanist education; he used to quote Homer in the original Greek and went on several archaeological digs in Greece as a student.

From 1941 until the end of my vocational training, I was a beneficiary of the Jewish Blind Society in England. Even my mother could find refuge in England only on a domestic permit, a guarantee of employment as a housemaid by a well-to-do family. However, by that time the Kindertransport2 had started, and she successfully applied for the job of matron of one of the hostels.

Per Aspera Ad Astra

"Through darkness to the stars" goes an old Roman proverb. Was it simply insensitivity that kept me on the straight and narrow throughout these personal crises and those still to come? I like to think it was the example of those around me, the realization that I had my own life to live, and most of all the determination to prove that my parents' despair at my future prospects was misplaced.

The new headmaster at Worcester College was too busy reestablishing the discipline that had been allowed to lapse under his predecessor to make many changes; consequently I was left in the class which was too far ahead of my as yet insufficiently adjusted performance, and it was no surprise that my first shot at matriculation ended in failure. It was not until September of 1939 that I got into the class I should have been in from the start and began being treated as one of the group.

The outbreak of World War II that month brought new complications. In common with all other central European refugees, I was technically an enemy alien, a situation exacerbated in my case because I was discovered to be without a passport, which had recently gone up to the German embassy for renewal. The local police wanted me interned—provincial forces often like to be seen as more enthusiastic in such matters than their more relaxed metropolitan colleagues—and I was saved only through the intercession of former British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, a patron of my school.

However, I remained subject to the provision that enemy aliens had to get police permission to travel more than five miles from their registered addresses, which meant that I missed out on most school outings such as concerts and visits to the Shakespeare Memorial Theater at nearby Stratford-on-Avon. However, the headmaster's wife often took me on my own when the permission belatedly arrived. As it was, I had to report to both Worcester and London police at the beginning and end of every holiday.

After I successfully got through matriculation into Worcester College in the summer of 1940, a choice had to be made regarding my future career. Based on my academic achievement, I should have been heading for Oxford and the law, but these were the darkest days of the war—Dunkirk, the Blitz, and the constant threat of invasion. The authorities thought that as an alien I would not be able to practice law. This was shortsighted because, if England lost the war, I would not be left alive, and if she won, I was hardly likely to remain an alien.

In any case, physiotherapy was chosen for me, and I was too conformist to object. At one time I had been sure that I was going to work with animals. I had a season ticket to the Berlin zoo and was a daily visitor there, so much so that I was allowed to handle some of the animals. Of course those hopes vanished with my sight, and after that it hardly seemed to matter what I became. Yet I can scarcely complain: physiotherapy was an expanding profession, much in demand because countless soldiers and civilians had to be rehabilitated after injury.

After qualifying in 1945, I worked for twenty years in a general hospital before settling down to a thriving private practice in the house in which I live, but not before overcoming another crisis. At the age of nineteen I caught the measles and on recovering found my hearing further damaged. Scientific trials have proved that spoken information is more efficiently processed if the listener can watch the speaker. Blind people compensate by sharpening their hearing with practice, a blessing denied to the hearing impaired. However, willpower and the steady improvement in the quality of hearing aids have meant that this has not been an insurmountable additional handicap, as those who know me can testify.

Taking Stock

What sort of person have all these experiences, fairly untypical in combination, made of me? The complete answer should probably be left to others, but some things others cannot know. These might better be left unsaid, but any history, even a personal one, should be a mixture of fact, analysis, and interpretation. However, I am not a psychoanalyst, and it is a contradiction in terms to be objective about oneself; so I can only present the facts as I see them and leave others to judge the outcome.

I would label myself an optimistic fatalist, meaning that I think things will turn out well but accept the inevitable without protest. Some of my acquaintances call me combative. Maybe so, because I am outraged at the public attitude about blindness and those who must cope with it: there, but for the grace of God, go they. Yet legislation is required (and none too readily approved) to stop society from relegating us to a lower substratum of humankind. I fiercely resent being labeled deaf-blind, considering it a linguistic outrage peculiar to English speakers, although to my knowledge only German has a single word for hard of hearing.

With hindsight I realize that I missed my father greatly. I had no instruction in sexual matters, probably because he believed that I would never have a chance to express myself: where ignorance is bliss, it's folly to be wise. The senior boys at Worcester had monthly dances to which they could invite their favorite partners. I asked the same girl for years, but if anyone had suggested that a physical element existed in this relationship, I would have been incredulous and bewildered. At age nineteen I learnt the facts of life from a book by a clergyman.

My father would have been a wise and sympathetic counselor during my emotional crises. At twenty-three I was married; my wife was twenty-five. She was a refugee from Vienna. We married mainly to get away from unsympathetic home environments. Our marriage was doomed before it started: a friend of my mother, a doctor's wife, told my wife-to-be that we should not have children because of my sight defect, but to keep this advice from me. This was a dastardly thing to do, but she no doubt acted from a sense of duty. My wife could have ignored this advice on the strength of the argument that there should be no secrets between husband and wife, and I could have probed more deeply than I did. As it was, her answer to my questions about children was always "not yet"—she was developing an ultimately very successful business in ladies' fashion.

We split up after ten years, and not until then did I go for genetic counseling. Of course this provided good news, but by then it was too late. At a time when young people sort out their emotional lives, in the second decade, I had other priorities and problems which left me seriously immature for a long time. My mother used to say to both my wives, "Don't expect too much love from him; he has had too hard a life." If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, love must surely be in the perception of the recipient. My answer to the age-old question, "do you love me?" is "that's for you to judge."

With my second wife, also from Berlin, the problem is different: she has retinitis pigmentosa, and there was no question of children. We have now been married for over forty years, and she has recently become almost totally blind. I cannot help her because I am too far ahead on the road to adjustment, and she is too fearful of taking a step in the dark, although she manages kitchen and household affairs very well. We have no social life and few friends, just plenty of people who help us with reading, shopping, and guiding, which is not a basis for true friendship. On gloomy days I often have the I-feel-like-the-eternal-outcast blues—a foreigner among the English, a Jew among Christians, a blind person among Jews, a deaf person among the blind, who are often quite intolerant of people with other handicaps.

If I were given the choice, I think I might prefer things to people. However, apart from my two inconveniences, as the late Kenneth Jernigan liked to call them, I enjoy good health at eighty plus, go skiing in winter and walking in summer, enjoy music, including playing classical piano, chess, and reading, and get great satisfaction from the time I spend helping to improve blind people's lives.

There you have it—much too long, but how could I have shortened it without making it less effective? If you find it distressing, blame the editor, not me.


1 Kristallnacht: On November 9, 1938, Nazi stormtroopers ransacked Jewish houses and shops all over Germany as reprisal for the death of the German chargé d'affaires in Paris, Von Rath, shot by a demented Polish Jew.

2 Kindertransport: In the spring of 1939 the British government decided to give refuge to 10,000 Jewish children and have them placed with foster families.


A deferred charitable gift annuity is a way for donors to save taxes and make significant donations to the National Federation of the Blind. (The amounts here are illustrative, not precise.) It works like this:

James Johnson, age fifty, has decided to set up a deferred charitable gift annuity. He transfers $10,000 to the NFB. In return, when he reaches sixty-five, the NFB will pay James a lifetime annuity of $1,710 per year, of which $179 is tax free. In addition, James can claim a charitable tax deduction of $6,387 of the $10,000 gift in the year the donation is made.

For more information about deferred gift annuities, contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, phone (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.


(back) (next) (contents)