The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family–Roger Cohen

I did not purposely begin this book at the time that the Trump administration began, but the early events of that administration made reading this book particularly challenging.  In the West, we like to believe that we have moved beyond the ethnic hatred and the moral lassitude that fueled the Holocaust.  Other people now enact genocides.  We know better.


Cohen is not a historian.  He is a journalist who dives into his family history to better understand his mother’s mental illness, which he and his sister discover as young adults.  His journey takes him to Lithuania, from which his grandparents escaped to South Africa in time to avoid the extermination that met so many of their neighbors.  Cohen’s mother’s mental illness, he finds, runs through her family.  Whether its roots are genetic or environmental, or a combination of both as DNA strained to cope with the trauma of leaving one’s homeland and then survivor guilt and the cognitive dissonance of accepting South African racism in order to avoid being subjected to the type of racism you had fled in the first place, is unclear.

Cohen’s ancestors left Lithuania in the nineteenth century.  Cohen traces their story as well as the stories of those who stayed.  Ongoing trauma haunts Cohen’s memoir–the trauma of ostracism, the trauma of exile, the trauma of survivor’s guilt, the trauma of sacrificing others to save yourselves, and so on.

While the United States was struggling to respond to an immigrant ban that seemed to be crafted to target Muslims without expressly banning Muslims, I struggled to read about the ways in which Lithuanians, Soviets, and Nazis slowly (or not so slowly) defined Jews as others and found avenues to excuse their extermination.  I also struggled to understand what made those who protected Cohen’s ancestors stand up when those around them stood down or helped commit evil.  I struggled further to understand why those brave individuals were rewarded with imprisonment and death.  Where is the “good guy wins in the end?”

There is no win in this tale.  Cohen’s grandparents and many other Jews escaped Lithuania for South Africa only to become complicit in the oppression of those native to South Africa.  When apartheid became official policy, many Jews left, including Cohen’s parents.  His mother, raised in privilege and sunshine, found England a difficult adjustment and the mental illness that plagued her family caught up with her there.  She was institutionalized and received electroshock therapy when Cohen was just three and missed his birthday.  She was institutionalized again following the birth of his sister, with what we might now call post-partum depression.

Cohen traces his family history to trace the losses and explain the suppressed trauma that may have emerged through mental illness. He traces the illness through his family tree, up to his cousins living in Israel and trying to cope with the need for a Jewish state while seeing the hypocrisy of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Cohen also traces his branch of the family’s decision to reject Jewish religious practice, as well as their inability to avoid the consequences of being labeled Jewish, the quiet anti-Semitism of the British that seemed welcome after the violent anti-Semitism of the Continent, and his own relief at finding himself in company with those who don’t quite belong upon moving to New York.  Cohen explores the ways in which his family’s story moved him to pursue journalism and the stories of others who no longer fit in.

Cohen’s experiences have left him with a pessimistic view, a belief that, at the end of the day, most of us will choose our tribe over what is right.  He tries to end on a note of hope, an idea that someday we will find a way to live together peacefully, but the it is an optimism not supported by his narrative.

The Girl from Human Street will stay on my shelf.  Many of its most poignant lines are already posted on my Facebook wall and written on my memory.  I highly recommend Cohen’s memoir, but I do not promise it will be an easy journey.

Finished 2/13/17


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