Margot Cohen, 1922-2016: The Daring Heroine From the National Library Archive

Martin Buber’s devoted secretary and archivist helped save dozens of Jewish children from the Holocaust in her native France.

Margot Cohen, 1922-2016.
Courtesy of the family

In 1958, after the death of his wife, the renowned philosopher Martin Buber was looking for a secretary to help him with his work from his home in Jerusalem. Margot Cohen, who had immigrated to Israel from France several years earlier, was looking for a part-time job at the time.

“I complained that I was bored, until one day an old friend, an employee in the Beit Hasfarim Haleumi (later the National Library), said that Buber was looking for a worker. My husband told me that it was an opportunity for me,” she later recalled.

After seeing that she was hesitant, her husband urged her: “He’s not looking for a philosopher, he’s looking for a secretary.” The job interview took place in the Buber home on Hovevei Zion Street in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood. Cohen, who was familiar with Buber’s name from the bookshelf in her home, said she was surprised to see the “very small” bearded man. Next to him, in a basket in the corner of the room, lay a cat with kittens.

The interview was conducted in German and included only one question: “Who knows you?” When Cohen mentioned the name of kabbala scholar Gershom Scholem, a family friend, she was hired immediately.

The National Library in Jerusalem, March 21, 2013.
Emil Salman

“Suddenly I learned a lot and got to know an enchanting world, which until then was entirely foreign to me. A world of German Judaism and philosophy. I was fascinated by the culture, by the knowledge. It enriched my life and my world,” she said.

Originally her job was supposed to last for a few weeks, In fact, it ended only after seven years, with Buber’s death. “He asked me to stay. I agreed only on condition that I could come in the morning, after the children went to school, and return home after they returned,” she recalled.

In Buber’s house she found “treasures,” as she put it. Among other things there were “bundles tied with rubber bands, some of them tattered, arranged according to the name of the writer.” Inside them she found letters from “famous people from all over the world – writers, politicians and intellectuals, in various languages.”

After Buber’s death in 1965, she went to work in the Department of Manuscripts and Archives of the Beit Hasfarim Haleumi. She worked there for decades and continued to volunteer even after retirement. First she fulfilled Buber’s last will and organized his archive there. At the same time she prepared the bibliography of Buber’s writings.

In 1968, a few months before his death, Max Brod, Franz Kafka’s friend and biographer, contacted her and asked to visit the department accompanied by his secretary, Esther Hoffe. “During the meeting Brod told me that it was important to him that his archive be in the same place as the archives of his friends, in particular Martin Buber, whom he admired so much,” she said. “I remember very well how we spoke about the fact that bringing Brod’s archive to the library would lead to a situation where the friends from that period in Prague would ‘meet’ here in the library,” she said.

Max Brod and Esther Hoffe.
Courtesy

But Brod passed away before transferring his archive to the National Library. In 1982 Cohen met with Hoffe, Brod’s secretary, once again, this time in her home in Tel Aviv. The purpose of the meeting was to try to convince her to transfer Brod’s archive to the library.

Cohen later said that the meeting had failed. She recalled that she was shocked at the condition of the apartment and described how cats were lying on the papers in the apartment. “She was interested in only one thing: money,” she said about Hoffe.

In 2011, several years after Hoffe’s death, she once again became involved with Brod’s estate. This time she went as far as the Family Court in Ramat Gan, where she submitted a deposition at the trial of the National Library versus Hoffe’s daughters, demanding to receive Brod’s estate and prevent its sale to others.

“Brod never mentioned in his will selling his archive to the highest bidder. That option is entirely contrary to Brod’s wishes,” said Cohen, who reinforced the claim that Brod was opposed to having his archive transferred to Germany, describing that as an “inconceivable idea.” In the end her statement helped the National Library to win the case.

French medal

Prior to that legal battle, Cohen took part in a different, dangerous and heroic battle that eventually entitled her to the French Legion of Honor medal for her activity in rescuing Jewish children in the Holocaust. Cohen was born in 1922 in Alsace, France.

“We were French Jews who were enthusiastic Francophiles. We thought that we really belonged to French culture and values,” she said in an interview for the Toldot Yisrael documentation project. “Judaism was quite a distant matter. I didn’t know the meaning of the Jewish National Fund collection box hanging on the wall. The Land of Israel was something unreal.”

Her life changed in the summer of 1940, when Germany occupied France. In the middle of her 18th birthday meal, there was a knock at the door. “They came to pick us up, assembled all the Jews in the central square, and there was an orchestra that celebrated the expulsion of the Jews. They loaded us onto trucks,” she said.

She spend the following years as an activist in the resistance movement, who saved the lives of dozens of Jewish children. She did so in the context of the Jewish humanitarian organization OSE and the rescue network headed by Georges Garel. Her main job was to transfer Jewish children to hiding places with French families in the Lyon region, who were paid for their efforts.

Andree Salomon, an OSE relief worker, and child survivors at a shelter in France before their departure to the United States.
Ghetto Fighters' House archive

“Every month I would send them a payment so that they would take care of the children,” she said. She traveled by bicycle to visit the children who lived in the hiding places and pay the Frenchmen who hid them.

“They didn’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts. They needed the money,” she said.

She met her husband, Yaakov, while involved in the rescue activities. After the war they moved to Paris and in 1952 they immigrated to Israel, where he worked for the Education Ministry. He died in 1974. Surviving Margot are three children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.