Diasporic Memories of a Jewish Family

Strangers in a strange land has been the universal theme of the Jewish story. Roger Cohen's 'A Girl from Human Street' provides an emotional account of his family's diasporic journey.

Throughout history, Jews have been iconic diasporic figures. From the Assyrians to the Blood Libel to the Holocaust and to modern day acts of anti-Semitism in France and England, Jews have been persecuted, exiled, and killed. Because of this history of persecution, Jewish personal and family narratives typically involve immigration. Roger Cohen’s The Girl From Human Street: Ghost of Memory in a Jewish Family weaves together Cohen’s family’s own diasporic story in a stream-of-consciousness manner. From Lithuania to South Africa, he interprets his family’s generational tale as one that fits neatly into the larger Jewish story:

“Being a Jewish story of the twentieth century, it bears upon migration and displacement and suicide and persecution and assimilation. It also recounts bravery, a passionate quest for learning, obstinate love, and the pursuit of beauty. From Lithuania and then South Africa, the family path winds on through Britain to Israel and the United States… It has taken me a long time to piece all this together. Memories come not like heavy rain but like the drops falling from leaves after it” (4).

Cohen’s use of memory and the theme of immigration provides an evocative look at what it means to be a Jew from different parts of the world through a personal lens. He provides ways to rethink geography and how it effects what it means to be Jewish. His ability to interweave personal stories yields a unique perspective the Jewish journey. Cohen demonstrates that there’s no single monolithic Jewish story but rather multiple Jewish stories and experiences. Most of all, he shows that whether Jews are living in Israel or outside of it, they still hold onto their history of persecution. Jews face inner conflict whether or not they are the prime target of persecution and whether they are a minority or the majority.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Cohen’s book is his discussion of being Jewish in South Africa. In the small town in Lithuania that Cohen’s grandfather left, “thousands of Jews were annihilated on October 2, 1941” (251), but the Jews in South Africa were saved because the “color line” dictated their station. In South Africa, whiteness trumped Jewishness. Cohen shows that anti-Semitism did exist in South Africa, as evidenced by the immigration Quota Act of 1930 (interestingly similar to the United States’ Immigration Act of 1924), which prevented Jews from Eastern Europe (Lithuania, Poland, and Russia) from immigrating. There were also attacks directed at Jews based on their business relations and the Jewish opposition to assimilation (126).

However, while Cohen acknowledges the existence of anti-Semitism in South Africa, especially during the Nazi era, he points out that it became less blatant as of the 1948 election, when the National Party witnessed the defeat of Nazism in Europe in the mid-’40s. In the end, South Africa changed and “toned down the anti-Semitic rhetoric, decid[ing] to co-opt the Jews as fellow whites in the confrontation with the black majority” (126). To further this view, the South African government politically aligned itself with the South African Jewish community. The government’s support extended to the state of Israel (127). In contrast, in Lithuania, Jews could not hide behind their whiteness. Cohen’s analysis beautifully shows the complexity of Jewish identity and the way that geography can alter the Jewish position and what it means to be Jewish.

One of the fascinating contributions of Cohen’s text is the comparison he draws between Jews and blacks. Narratives about black–Jewish history are typically set within an American context, especially during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. South African society, like that of the United States in general and the American South in particular, was based on a black–white binary. In the American South the system was known as Jim Crow, and in South Africa it was apartheid.

Cohen’s father was the dean of Douglas Smit House, which was a residence for black students who attended the University of the Witwaterstrand. Cohen explores the disenfranchisement of black students. The black South African students were not allowed to play rugby, were kept separate from whites, and were not permitted access to the same resources. He explains situations that often occurred with the students of the Douglas Smit House:

…the black students housed there were subject to a labyrinth of legal restrictions designed to keep Africans out of such areas. Every black South African over the age of sixteen had to carry the dompas—the damned passbook—complete with fingerprints and permission from the government to be in a particular area at a particular time for a particular employment or reasons. Arrest was arbitrary… Much of my father’s time was spent in police stations negotiating the release of black students from white cops (47).

Cohen demonstrates that black South Africans were completely marginalized. Even though his family was Jewish, his father’s whiteness enabled him to negotiate with the white police to help the black students. At the same time, Cohen does show that in the ’50s Jews felt insecure about stepping in and defending black South Africans: “Blessed with the color of the ruling caste, and now accepted as paid-up whites in an apartheid system, South African Jews nonetheless lived in an unease they seldom avowed” (127).

Interestingly, there is a resemblance between American Jewish southerners and South African Jews. Cohen may not discuss the American southern Jewish experience in relation to African-Americans, but his book shows the larger conflict that Jews had over involving themselves in defense of another minority that was being persecuted. Like South African Jews, Jews in the American South were leery of getting involved in civil rights matters because they did not feel secure enough in their position as white. They were haunted by the memories of past Jewish persecution. Cohen tells the story of Jews in South Africa by narrating anecdotes that illuminate his family’s experience with black South Africans and intertwining them with the story of the general Jewish population.

Another story Cohen presents involves the Holocaust survivor Rabbi Ungar. This story shows the parallel between apartheid and the Nuremberg laws, which were imposed on Jews under Nazism. Ungar felt that what happened to black South Africans was “déjà vu” from his past (125). Ungar later told Cohen, “I remember being ordered into a ghetto in Budapest in 1944, and the attitudes of racial superiority in South Africa seemed to me to be cut from the same cloth. Even if there was no systematic extermination, black life was cheap… A few months later Passover came. And I made some comparison about our slavery in Egypt, liberation and the conditions of oppression of black Africans. The parallels seemed inescapable.” Ungar made the Jews, who represented “4 percent of the white population, uneasy” (qtd. in 126). Overall, South African Jews remained silent.

In the end, Ungar was put under governmental orders to leave. Cohen explains that “Jews learn selectively from the past, just like everyone else” (131). At the same time, Cohen writes about his grandmother’s brother Willie Michel’s wife, Joyce, who was a member of the Black Sash, an anti-apartheid movement circa 1955, which was composed of white women. She stood up for the cause but did not suffer the same fate as Ungar. Cohen also recounts that the lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela was a Jewish attorney. This further shows the complications of the Jewish position: the Jews of South Africa, like American Southern Jews, were afraid, but some did look beyond their fears.

Cohen complicates this image of Jewish whiteness in South Africa with personal stories of anti-Semitism that he experienced in England. He states that in England anti-Semitism was in the “background” (158). His parents were “quiet to the point of silence about the Jewishness” (158), but he was harassed as a child in school. In England, Cohen’s family faced the double burden of being immigrants and Jewish: “the immigrant’s push for assimilation, the subliminal shame of the diaspora Jewish survivor” (158). Cohen’s mother, uncomfortable with being an immigrant Jew in England, always felt that people whispered, “a JEW” (159) behind her back. In England she had to be quiet about being Jewish, as the British would make subtle comments related to prejudicial stereotypes (i.e., about money, behavior, and intelligence). The Jews of England had “opted to keep their heads down” (158). Most of all, the family felt isolated without the South African-American Jewish community:

My mother’s difficulties as an immigrant trying to adapt were of many different kinds. She had been deracinated. In Mildewed England there were no more Shabbat gatherings, no more beef on rye, none of that sunny ease where friends from the neighborhood popped in. One of her problems, although she never framed it that way, lay in how to be that whispered word—a JEW (159).

This stress of being an immigrant Jew was compounded by Cohen’s mother’s personal battle with mental illness and several suicide attempts.

In addition to examining many different countries, including South Africa, England, and Lithuania, Cohen offers his perspective on Israel. He feels a strong connection with the state, but this is partly because of his experience as a Jew perpetually living outside of the homeland. In other countries, he was an outsider living on the edge, but in Israel, he is able to be an insider instead of the stranger in a new land. Cohen strongly believes the need for a Jewish “homeland where nobody can tell the Jews they don’t belong. Such feelings are visceral more than logical; they are also powerful” (268).

However, at the same time, he is not completely accepting of the politics and government of the state. Though he is troubled by the comparisons of Israel and apartheid—having lived through the latter—he is bothered by the Palestinian position. He states that a “the Jewish national home is needed. It must now be reinvented. For that, the corrosive occupation has to end, and with it the settlement industry” (270). This perspective on Israel shows that Jews, even when they are the majority, still struggle to adapt while maintaining their historical identity.

Cohen offers many different anecdotes about family members and life experiences and weaves them all together to show how his family’s own personal diaspora fits in with the larger Jewish one: “all are intertwined in a single chain” (264). Cohen’s work shows the importance of remembering the past in order to appreciate that all Jews are connected, even when they are “scattered or split” all over the world (264).

RATING 7 / 10