Erich Cohen was the son of sales representative Paul Cohen and was baptised as a child alongside his father in 1928 at the age of 6, probably to avoid persecution under the National Socialists. This had little effect, and with the boycott of Jewish merchants in 1933, Cohen’s father lost all his income and was on the edge of suicide. In 1934, his father suffered a stroke requiring long-term care. Paul Cohen died and was buried on September 1, 1939, the day the war began.
Erich himself experienced comparatively little discrimination at school, which he was able to attend until his Abitur in 1940. The fact that other Jewish classmates stayed away from school and the experience of Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938 did not fully impact on his consciousness. But he was expelled from the Hitler Youth movement in autumn of 1935 and this meant the beginning of his existence as a “second class citizen” who tried to remain “under the radar”. He would spend all his free time in a student Bible study group, and when this also was banned, in the “Youth Awake” Bible study group, which supported him practically.
“I lived with the Bible and from the Bible. I lived with the church and for the church.”
The group leader, Walter Posth, impressed on him the need to study theology and particularly the theology of the Confessing Church.Whilst he was advised to discard his Jewish name in order to avoid problems, Cohen refused.
In April 1940, he began studying theology in Halle without being registered, attending the lectures of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Whist the faculty of theology accepted his application for admission to the course, the rector of the university rejected it, so that he could only stay until the beginning of February. In 1941 he remained at the Faculty of Theology as an “illegal” student.
He was called up for military service on December 2, 1941 but was dishonourably discharged on May 15, 1942, as a “first degree half-breed”.
The father of a college friend from Halle, Reiner Ebel, was a parish priest in East Prussia. He placed Cohen as a tutor in a noble family in Ottenburg. In August 1943 he took up a new position as tutor in Lugowen. Since the school board had not approved the lessons, he was dismissed in April 1944 and employed in a stationery store in Insterburg.
He assisted in local church services as a “theology student who actually wasn’t because he hadn’t been allowed”. In January 1945 he came to the West on a refugee transport. In the turmoil of the dissolving bureaucracy, Cohen was able to spend the last months of the war with relatives in Bernburg undisturbed. He devoted himself to self-study of theology and resumed theology studies in 1946 – now legally enrolled – in Göttingen. After his exams, Cohen was an educational inspector at the church college in Wuppertal from 1950 to 1952, then pastor of the Rhenish Church in Bendorf and Düsseldorf-Gerresheim. For many decades he tried to hide his Jewish roots, but participation in the “Christians and Jews” committee of the Rhenish regional church brought him into conversation with Jewish people. A study trip to Israel helped him acknowledge his Jewish identity. He died on March 31, 2013 in a retirement home in Schweinfurt.
Reflection: The life and ministry of Eric Cohen is shrouded in secrecy, and the threat of persecution. Yet he managed to study the Bible and Theology, and serve despite the many restrictions placed upon him. In different times he would perhaps have been a more outspoken critic of the Nazi regime, a more visible expression of Jewish faith in Jesus, and a more active defender of his people. But who are we to judge? He did what he had to to survive in a time of genocide, and we pay tribute to his memory, legacy and faith.
Psalm 116: 9-15 I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living. I believed, therefore I said, “I am greatly afflicted.” In my alarm I said, “All men are liars!”
How can I repay the LORD for all His goodness to me? I will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD. I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of all His people.
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.
Evangelisch Getauft – als Juden Verfolgt – Baptised as Protestants, Persecuted as Jews, pp.76-77. Sigrid Lekebusch / Hartmut Ludwig LL, 2014