Holocaust Survivor and Liberator Frank Cohn Is a Shining Example of Resilience

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Frank Cohn. Courtesy of U.S. Army
Frank Cohn. Courtesy of U.S. Army

Retired Army Colonel, World War II veteran and Fort Belvoir, Virginia, resident Frank Cohn is a shining example of survival and resilience, with a remarkable story of an escape from Nazi Germany as an early teenager and eventual service as a liberator when he fought in Europe during the war. Cohn, who spent the rest of his career in the U.S. Army, is approaching his 100th birthday with a strong mind and spirit.

Cohn, now almost 99 years old, still vividly recalls his childhood and experiences abroad, where he fought in the famous Battle of the Bulge and worked as an interpreter, before spending a 35-year career as a military police officer and volunteering within the Jewish community after his retirement.

“I was born in the city of Breslau, which doesn’t exist anymore. It’s now Wrocław, Poland, which happened right after World War II. But we were a very comfortable middle-class family in 1925,” Cohn said.

The family owned a sporting goods store and Cohn said that life was good until the Nazis took power in the early 1930s, leading the business to be harassed by Nazis and increasingly dangerous conditions in schools and public life.

“[One day] there were a couple of Nazis in uniform parading in front of my father’s store, with signs saying, ‘Don’t buy from Jews, Jews are our disaster.’”

The situation worsened in school, where Cohn said he was very excited because his favorite second grade teacher was supposed to teach them again the next year, but when he arrived for class, the teacher was wearing a full Nazi SA uniform.

Even his babysitter fell under the spell of Nazi influence, taking him to a parade and forcing him to salute to Hitler.

Eventually, the situation became so bad that the family had to try something new, and the choice they made ended up saving the family’s lives.

“After my bar mitzvah, my father pulled me aside and said, ‘Things are serious, I can no longer support the family. We have to do something drastically different. I’m leaving for the United States, because I have some distant relatives there who might give me an affidavit,’ and well, he left on a visitor’s visa,” Cohn said.

That trip to America likely saved Cohn’s father, as the Gestapo came looking for him while he was away, asking for him to come down to their station, where Jews had previously been killed.

Cohn and his mother were able to secure visitors visas to the U.S. with some bribery and a lack of computer records like you’d see today, which got both of them safely to New York City for a reunion with their father and husband, and permanent visa status after Kristallnacht.

That began Cohn’s story of assimilation into American culture, going to school and learning the language from movies, until he got drafted into service during the summer of 1944, just after his 18th birthday.

Cohn had to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen before he deployed, as he was previously an “enemy alien,” according to his sergeant, since he still had his German passport.

“I finally got orders to Fort Benning, Georgia, for my basic training, and a couple of weeks after I arrived there, they took me to the Middle District Court, and I was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. And boy, was I proud. I patted myself on the back because there was nobody else to do that. And I now knew I was like everybody else. I was no longer an enemy alien. I was a U.S. citizen and that just felt wonderful,” Cohn said.

The fighting took him across Europe as an infantry replacement in the fall of 1944, and he ended up in Belgium before the Army realized that he spoke German and transferred him to an intelligence unit where he would interrogate captured German soldiers.

“When I left Germany, I was a victim,” Cohn said in a 2020 Army News Service article. “When I came back, I was in charge.”

But one of the most formative moments of Cohn’s life came during the Battle of the Bulge, one of the last major Allied offensives against the Germans, the first night of which Cohn called, “the scariest night of my life.”

Cohn was put on guard duty, sent alone to stop trucks approaching the base and check if they were Germans while the battle raged nearby.

“The weather was absolutely horrid. It was either snowing or sleeting or freezing rain or just wet, and we were patrolling with a windshield down because you can’t shoot through the windshield at 25 miles per hour. That gust was just brutal, hitting you with wet stuff coming in your face. And once your feet get wet, you never got them dry,” Cohn said.

Once that battle was won, a second part of their mission came about, which was capturing and getting information on war criminals to aid in their prosecution following the war.

Cohn eventually began working with German POWs and creating documents to be sent back to the U.S. to help with the prosecutions before he earned the right to go home, where he left intelligence and joined the military police.

“Intelligence was still a reserve branch. I had to take a regular Army branch, and the closest was military police. And that’s when I became a military police officer. And I stayed in the Army for a total of 35 years in the military, and I retired in 1978 from the military police from the position of chief of staff, Military District of Washington, in Washington, D.C.,” Cohn said.

After his retirement in 1978 and tours in Korea and Vietnam, Cohn was presented with multiple awards, including induction into the Military Police Hall of Fame in 2004, the French Chevalier Legion of Honor and the German Grand Service Cross, and the Order of the Marechaussee, a top military police honor, in 2020.

Cohn also volunteered at the University of Maryland and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for many years, even doing a speaker series about his experiences at the museum, and he continues to enjoy his retirement to this day.

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