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The Girl from Human Street
Cover of The Girl from Human Street
The Girl from Human Street
Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family
Borrow Borrow

An intimate and profoundly moving Jewish family history—a story of displacement, prejudice, hope, despair, and love.
In this luminous memoir, award-winning New York Times columnist Roger Cohen turns a compassionate yet discerning eye on the legacy of his own forebears. As he follows them across continents and decades, mapping individual lives that diverge and intertwine, vital patterns of struggle and resilience, valued heritage and evolving loyalties (religious, ethnic, national), converge into a resonant portrait of cultural identity in the modern age.
Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through to the present day, Cohen tracks his family's story of repeated upheaval, from Lithuania to South Africa, and then to England, the United States, and Israel. It is a tale of otherness marked by overt and latent anti-Semitism, but also otherness as a sense of inheritance. We see Cohen's family members grow roots in each adopted homeland even as they struggle to overcome the loss of what is left behind and to adapt—to the racism his parents witness in apartheid-era South Africa, to the familiar ostracism an uncle from Johannesburg faces after fighting against Hitler across Europe, to the ambivalence an Israeli cousin experiences when tasked with policing the occupied West Bank.
At the heart of The Girl from Human Street is the powerful and touching relationship between Cohen and his mother, that "girl." Tortured by the upheavals in her life yet stoic in her struggle, she embodies her son's complex inheritance.
Graceful, honest, and sweeping, Cohen's remarkable chronicle of the quest for belonging across generations contributes an important chapter to the ongoing narrative of Jewish life.

An intimate and profoundly moving Jewish family history—a story of displacement, prejudice, hope, despair, and love.
In this luminous memoir, award-winning New York Times columnist Roger Cohen turns a compassionate yet discerning eye on the legacy of his own forebears. As he follows them across continents and decades, mapping individual lives that diverge and intertwine, vital patterns of struggle and resilience, valued heritage and evolving loyalties (religious, ethnic, national), converge into a resonant portrait of cultural identity in the modern age.
Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through to the present day, Cohen tracks his family's story of repeated upheaval, from Lithuania to South Africa, and then to England, the United States, and Israel. It is a tale of otherness marked by overt and latent anti-Semitism, but also otherness as a sense of inheritance. We see Cohen's family members grow roots in each adopted homeland even as they struggle to overcome the loss of what is left behind and to adapt—to the racism his parents witness in apartheid-era South Africa, to the familiar ostracism an uncle from Johannesburg faces after fighting against Hitler across Europe, to the ambivalence an Israeli cousin experiences when tasked with policing the occupied West Bank.
At the heart of The Girl from Human Street is the powerful and touching relationship between Cohen and his mother, that "girl." Tortured by the upheavals in her life yet stoic in her struggle, she embodies her son's complex inheritance.
Graceful, honest, and sweeping, Cohen's remarkable chronicle of the quest for belonging across generations contributes an important chapter to the ongoing narrative of Jewish life.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    After lunch Hilton Barber lent me his jeep and I scudded away on a delightful jaunt. We traveled through twisting country byways until the town of Monza. There we followed route 36 northward to Lecco. As we bypassed the town we got our first view of the famous Alpine lakes . . . an azure strip of unbelievable blue flanked by great mountains. . . . We passed through several icy tunnels and the beauty of the scene grew more breathtaking as we neared Bellagio, a wonderful village nestling in the fork of the lake beneath the majestic mountains. . . . A drove of little boys clambered onto the jeep, an incredible number appeared from all over the place. At one stage Wilson counted 21 of them on the jeep. Bellagio was indeed delightful. It was while there that we heard that the war was over, a report that was subsequently verified as we drove on down Lake Como to Como. . . . All along the road from Bellagio throngs had lined each village street and flowers in profusion had been tossed into the jeep.

    So, in Bellagio, right here, feted by children and flowers, my uncle's war ended. "GUERRA FINITA!!!"--­"WAR OVER!!!"--­he exulted in his diary. He was twenty-­six and far from home. As a young dentistry graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand, he had enlisted in Johannesburg on January 15, 1943. After training, he flew by stages to Egypt to join the Allies' North African campaign. From there, in April 1944, he embarked for Italy, on the lowest deck, landing in Taranto, near the heel of Italy's boot. Churchill had called Italy "the soft underbelly of the Axis," but resistance to the Allied assault was stern. Bert's progress northward through Naples, Rome, and Florence to Bellagio was no sunlit Italian passeggiata. The winter of 1944 was spent encamped high in the freezing Apennines facing a German line stretching across the country from Pisa to Rimini. He filled teeth in freezing, improvised dental surgeries.

    Bert had to battle through the German lines. At Finale Emilia, north of Modena, on April 24, 1945, he was ordered into a bend in the Penaro River where a Nazi column was trapped. Skiet gemors--­Shoot the garbage--­was a rough guide to his Afrikaner com­mander's battle code. An artillery battery pulverized the enclave. Wrecked vehicles smoldered. Wounded horses, nostrils flared in gasping horror, bayed--­a terrible sound. In the carnage, ammunition exploded and tires burst. The stench of roasted flesh and putrefaction pervaded the air. Intestines of gutted animals ballooned from their carcasses. A squad of South African infantry marched through the ruins, bringing a bullet of mercy to animals that still agonized. One dead German in particular caught Bert's eye: a blond, square-­jawed young man with a long straight nose, hair flecked with blood and smoke, legs twisted grotesquely, abdomen ripped open, coils of gut spilling through a ragged gash into the dust, sightless blue eyes gazing at infinity. Beside the corpse lay scattered letters from the soldier's mother in Hamburg. She wrote about Der Angriff, the Allied bombardment of the city that killed more than 42,000 people. Uncertain what to do, Bert returned the letters to the dead man's pocket before grabbing a few ampoules of morphine found in an abandoned, ammunition-­filled German ambulance.

    That single German corpse among the more than 600,000 casualties of the Italian campaign haunted my uncle for the rest of his life. Bert dwelt on him as if this death were his responsibility, or as if he, a Jew from South Africa, might somehow have brought this handsome young man, Hitler's model Aryan, back to...

About the Author-
  • ROGER COHEN is a columnist for The New York Times, where he has worked since 1990: as a correspondent in Paris and Berlin, and as bureau chief in the Balkans covering the Bosnian war (for which he received an Overseas Press Club prize). He was named a columnist in 2009. He became foreign editor on 9/11, overseeing Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in the aftermath of the attack. His columns appear twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. His previous books include Soldiers and Slaves and Hearts Grown Brutal. He lives in London.

    @NYTimesCohen



Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    October 27, 2014
    In a lyrical, digressive tracking of mental illness in his far-flung family, New York Times columnist Cohen (Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis Final Gamble) explores the tentacles of repressed memory in Jewish identity. Cohen’s grandparents on both sides came from Lithuanian shtetls and migrated at the end of the 19th century to South Africa. From modest beginnings as grocers and roving peddlers, they gradually prospered as business leaders and professionals in Johannesburg, far from the calamity of Nazi Germany. Cohen’s father, a doctor in Krugersdorp, settled in London after WWII, bringing his South African wife, June, née Adler; assimilation was the rule of the day, and the horrors of Auschwitz were not discussed. “Better to look forward, work hard, say little,” Cohen, born in the mid-1950s, writes. Paralyzing depression dogged his mother, requiring hospitalization and electroconvulsive therapy, and she made several suicide attempts over the years. Her manic depression was shared by other members of the family, which Cohen traces to being “tied to... a Jewish odyssey of the 20th century, and the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing, and forgetting.” Cohen writes eloquently of the great looming irony of apartheid for the once similarly persecuted, now privileged Jews of South African, as well as the divisive oppression in Israel. Thoughtful, wide-ranging, he muses on his own migrations spurred by “buried truths.”

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from November 1, 2014
    In an effort to understand the modern Jewish experience, distinguished New York Times columnist Cohen (Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble, 2005, etc.) examines his family history of displacement, despair and resilience.The author has always prided himself on confronting the truth in his writing, but he knew that his work allowed him to escape the more difficult task of articulating a deeper personal truth. In this honest and lucid book, the British-born Cohen tells how his Lithuanian Jewish ancestors came to South Africa. Tolerated by white South Africans because they were also white-skinned, the author's relatives made prosperous lives as business people while avoiding the fate of millions of other Jews in Nazi Europe. Despite their successes, however, members of both sides of his family were plagued by mental illness. The genes that caused it "formed an unbroken chain with the past," which many of them tried to ignore. Cohen focuses in particular on the tragic story of his mother, June. Gifted and beautiful, she was also bipolar. When she and her family relocated to London, her symptoms surfaced and remained with her for the rest of her life. Cohen links June's unraveling with her sense of being a stranger in a strange land. Like one of his mother's relatives who ended up in Israel and eventually committed suicide, "[June] was a transplant who did not take." All too aware of how many South African Jews turned a blind eye to the problem of apartheid in South Africa, Cohen also examines Israel's evolution into a colonial nation that oppresses Arab minorities. Millennia of persecution and eternal exile has made a Jewish homeland a necessity, yet Israel will never fully succeed as a state until peaceful coexistence-of the kind white and black South Africans have slowly worked toward-becomes a reality. With limpid prose, Cohen delivers a searching and profoundly moving memoir.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    November 1, 2014
    Sit on the fence and people get killed behind it. The many readers of New York Times columnist Cohen will recognize the plain talk and passionate commitment, as well as the insightful, sometimes controversial commentary on crucial contemporary issues. And the wit. Rooted in his extended family's immigration story, especially that of his mother (who, moved from South Africa to London, became mentally ill, and attempted suicide in 1978), he addresses here the role of Jews in twentieth-century history, from Eastern Europe to South Africa to Britain to Israel. Never simplistic, he acknowledges that under apartheid most Jews looked on and kept quiet. As a child, he heard it Thank God for the blacks. If not for them, it would be us even as he points out the strong Jewish role in anti-apartheid resistance. Later, in Israel, his immigrant family split over the Occupation. Sure to spark debate, the often-painful immigration story stays with you, about then and now: As a child, trust was a stranger . . . . I had to look both ways. (Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2014, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal

    August 1, 2014

    Award-winning New York Times columnist Cohen chronicles the post-Holocaust Jewish experience largely through the life of his mother and her family, moving from Lithuania to South Africa, England, the United States, and Israel to consider the all-too-familiar racism of apartheid, for instance, and how the inevitable sense of otherness has damaged his family emotionally, contributing to a deep streak of manic depression.

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    December 1, 2014

    Journalist Cohen (New York Times; Soldiers and Slaves) presents a sprawling, multifaceted memoir that delves deeply into his family history, his mother's struggle with mental illness, and broader issues of Jewish identity, history, culture, and belonging within a wider diaspora. With his mother, June, firmly at the center of his tale, the author ably weaves disparate threads of his ancestors' stories, tracing their paths from Lithuania to apartheid-era South Africa, and eventually his family's settlement in England, where June's bipolar disorder emerged. VERDICT Cohen's nonchronological structure, sometimes elusive prose, and tendency to circle back to topics may challenge some readers. However, his creative approach to the genre form, deeply considered views, and candor will yield poignant rewards for thoughtful memoir fans interested in Jewish history, the modern Jewish experience, issues of displacement and immigration, or family struggles to cope with mental illness. Readers interested in Jewish immigration narratives may also consider Lucette Lagnado's The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. [See Prepub Alert, 7/21/14.]--Ingrid Levin, Salve Regina Univ. Lib., Newport, RI

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • The New York Review of Books "Empathetic and far-reaching... The imaginative empathy that he brings even to the secondary figures depicted here...is sometimes breathtaking... Cohen's book is written with a generosity that is truly humane."
  • The Washington Post "Beautifully crafted....[Cohen] reveals how the threads of [his] legacy of displacement are woven together, all the while making visible tears in the fabric never to be fully mended."
  • USA Today "There is so much to admire in The Girl from Human Street. Cohen['s]...suggestion that certain depressive natures are triggered, or more to the point, haunted, by their immigrant history, is profound. His memoir will linger in any reader's memory."
  • The New York Times Book Review "Cohen places the particular experiences of his family in a large historical frame....In his instructive meditations on history and Jewish life, Cohen...catches virtually the entire twentieth century."
  • Ian Critchley, The Sunday Times "Impressive....[Cohen's] moving, beautifully written book may be a 'story of the 20th century', but it also explores how Jewish identity might evolve in the 21st."
  • The Financial Times "A moving, complex story that traces a family's century of migration."
  • The Guardian "By tracing where his mother came from...[Cohen] speaks universally in this disarmingly raw narrative, and his lovely but haunted mother even more so – not least in her refusal to give up trying to love."
  • Haaretz "[As with] Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness...we are in the hands of a master stylist....As a writer [Cohen] is peerless among his journalist colleagues."
  • Publishers Weekly "Cohen...explores the tentacles of repressed memory in Jewish identity....Thoughtful, wide-ranging, he muses on his own migrations spurred by 'buried truths.'"
  • The Jerusalem Post "Exquisite....[Cohen] writes with a poetic fragility...always striving for moral clarity, even when his own inner contradictions and complexities impede him."
  • The Jewish Week "Many others have written stories of their family's roots and journeys, but Cohen's work stands out for his poetic and powerful prose."
  • The Huffington Post "Cohen knows the pleasures and also the loneliness of diaspora. In writing his stirring memoir, in constructing a past with which he can live, he wrestled with demons both historical and personal."
  • Bookanista "Vibrant, unusual and staunchly poignant....It is in fact not one, but many books: a lingering, evocative memoir, a gripping narrative, a shrewd socioeconomic history of South Africa, Britain, Israel, the US and Eastern Europe, a piercing philosophical analysis of the ethics of memory, of belonging to a story. It is quite unflinchingly an inquiry into the moral prerequisites of being human."
  • Kirkus, starred review "Honest and lucid...With limpid prose, Cohen delivers a searching and profoundly moving memoir."
  • Booklist "Insightful, sometimes controversial commentary on crucial contemporary issues."
  • Joseph Lelyveld, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White "A gifted journalist, who has powerfully conveyed the grief of the bereft in various international trouble spots, here wrestles with his own grief for a mother who suffered through episodes of suicidal depression. This turns into a quest for core values in a family history spanning three continents, in which one uprooting led to the next. Many readers will find a mirror in Roger Cohen's layered, ambitious, haunting book."
  • Henry A. Kissinger "Roger Cohen captures a century's upheavals in his moving, thoughtful, and well-written family saga."
  • Mary Szybist, winner of the National Book Award "Roger Cohen's great-grandfather once expressed the wish that every person might 'truly know that all of creation--from the sand granule to the shining star--is connected like one chain.' I wish he could read his great-grandson's book and experience how powerfully it initiates us into that extraordinary awareness. Beautifully written and deeply moving, The Girl from Human Street is at once a love letter to a lost mother and an unflinching account of devastation and displacement. How can a story of such sweeping scope also be so tender and so intimate? Roger Cohen turns personal and historical excavation into symphony."
  • Jonathan Freedland, columnist, The Guardian "Roger Cohen has written an absorbing, haunting voyage around the Jewish twentieth century. A book full of loss and love, it charts the
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