From Concentration Camp To Pittsburgh: One Family's Holocaust History

Nov 5, 2015

Werner Josef Cohen was arrested during Kristallnacht and went from a concentration camp to China to Pittsburgh. His grandson, Brandon Blache-Cohen is keeping his story alive.
Credit Courtesy Brandon Blache-Cohen via the Heinz History Center

Next week marks the anniversary of a major event leading up to the Holocaust: Kristallnacht.

Brandon Blache-Cohen's grandfather, Werner Josef Cohen, lived through it. Blache-Cohen never met his grandfather, who died in 1977, but he became interested in the elder Cohen’s history – and now shares his family’s story with as many people as possible.

“My grandfather was a Jewish carpenter born on Dec. 25, 1913," said Blache-Cohen. "He was rounded up and taken during Kristallnacht from his family in Hamburg, Germany and ended up in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp where he was faced with humiliation, injury and, of course, forced labor and imprisonment.”

Kristallnacht was a series of attacks Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, against Jews in Nazi Germany and parts of Austria. It was perpetrated by SA paramilitary forces and non-Jewish civilians. 

“Kristallnacht is the 'Night of Broken Glass.' It was when 30,000 Jews were rounded up and taken to different camps," Blache-Cohen said. "It was sort of the beginning of the terror against Jews in Germany. There had been signs of this for years. In fact, my grandfather as early as 1933 was being intimidated and had to leave his job at a chemical factory. Tons of synagogues were burned; books were burned. It’s when the intimidation went from sort of ... well, there’s no regular intimidation ... from xenophobia and anti-semitism to a full-out war against people.”

Blache-Cohen’s grandfather was released from the camp just north of Berlin in January 1939.

“At the time there was only one port city that was really accepting Jewish refugees," he said. "It wasn’t here in the United States. It wasn’t Israel, which didn’t exist yet. It was China. It was Shanghai, China. So an interesting part of history that people aren’t familiar with – my grandfather (and others) spent the better part of the 1940s living in the Shanghai Ghetto.”

His grandfather came to Pittsburgh in 1948. He thought he was offered a job with Pittsburgh Paints, but the job didn't materialize. Still, he stayed and started a family.

“Two generations later, I became really fascinated with his story, because we didn’t know very much about him. In fact, some of my young cousins, I was embarrassed to find out, didn’t even know they were from a family of Holocaust survivors. To me, that’s a great tragedy if we’re not able to tell these stories.”

Blache-Cohen will tell his grandfather’s story at a commemoration of Kristallnacht at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Heinz History Center. 

“It’s important to pass these stories on because the Holocaust is as relevant today as it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago or 30 years ago," he said. "Genocide still happens. Refugee crises still happen. I look at some of the images coming out of Europe with the Syrian refugee crisis and it’s impossible for me not to imagine my grandfather’s journey from Germany to China to the U.S.”

There are an estimated 55 holocaust survivors living in Pittsburgh. The Heinz History Center will host the Kristallnacht commemoration event in partnership with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. The event is free and open to the public. It’s part of a series of events nationally marking the somber anniversary.