The Accidental Holocaust Novelist

While teaching the narratives of gays, Roma, the disabled and political dissidents, Holocaust historian and educator Danny M. Cohen wrote a novel.

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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The Nazis' vicitms at Auschwitz also included untold thousands of gays, Roma and the disabled.
The Nazis' vicitms at Auschwitz also included untold thousands of gays, Roma and the disabled.Credit: Edward Serotta
Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

In Poland in 2005, global politicians and Holocaust survivors commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. At the time, Danny M. Cohen, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, had recently moved to the United States from his native England to start a masters program at Northwestern University in learning sciences, focusing on how people learn about prejudice, atrocity and genocide, with an emphasis on the Holocaust. A few days after the commemoration event, he found out that representatives of homosexual victims had been barred from attending.

“It was surprising that the LGBT community wasn’t being included in that event,” Cohen told Haaretz. “I’m Jewish and I know the Jewish narrative really well. And I’m also gay and I realized it’s problematic that I don’t know the narrative of the Nazi treatment of homosexuals. Why is it that certain narratives have been excluded? Not just homosexual victims but also Roma, the disabled and many other groups that aren’t usually included in Holocaust education in any meaningful way. That’s what triggered my work.”

A decade later, after receiving his PhD from Northwestern and joining the faculty of the School of Education and Social Policy there, he is still exploring how to integrate those narratives into Holocaust education. One area of focus is developing curriculum for middle- and high-school educators to complement more traditional Holocaust programs. Recently, that effort has taken him on a decidedly non-traditional path – as a young adult novelist.

It all began when fellow educators told him that his curriculum was a bit dry. They asked if he had any fiction to augment it, since books like Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars” and Jane Yolen’s “The Devil’s Arithmetic” have proved effective tools in making difficult themes digestible for teenagers. But Cohen could only find books that kept the various groups targeted by the Nazis segregated in their experiences.

“I started to write these short stories and played around with the idea of historical fiction,” said Cohen, who is also a songwriter and has long pursued creative writing. “I accidentally wrote this thriller called ‘Train.’ I didn’t set out to write a novel but I somehow did.”

Dual identities, simultaneous deportation

“Train,” which was published earlier this year, follows six teenagers over 10 days in Berlin as they try to evade the Nazis. Among them is Alex, who is both Jewish and gay, and Tsura, who is both Romani and a political dissident. Cohen wanted to root his story in actual events and, through his research, discovered a time when the narratives of these groups collided.

“I found 10 days in early 1943 when the Nazis begin to round up the remaining Jews in Berlin,” he said. “At exactly the same time, the Nazis began to deport the Roma from the encampments into Poland.”

It allowed him to tie the stories together, explore the idea of interconnectedness and ask the reader “why we remember these events separately, and why we don’t remember some of them at all.”

The dual identities of the characters are key to Cohen’s goal of challenging a narrow definition of the Holocaust. And it’s what makes “Train” a useful and compelling central text in Cohen’s Overlapping Triangles curriculum. In the five years since it launched, Overlapping Triangles has been piloted to over 1,600 people in the United States, UK, Germany, Israel and Poland. Cohen has partnered with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and will be working with Echoes and Reflections, the official curriculum of Yad Vashem and the Anti-Defamation League.

(A second forthcoming human rights thriller by Cohen, called “Hide or Speak,” addresses transgender rights and sexual violence. It’s the tent pole of another learning module called Taboo, which, along with Overlapping Triangles, makes up Cohen’s umbrella Unsilence Project.)

Shaking up history, avoiding universalism

Cohen admits that there is hesitation within the Jewish community when it comes to other victims of the Holocaust: “I am shaking up the way we think about the history, which some people find threatening or jarring.”

He says he has received much support for his project, but also often gets asked: “Won’t this dilute the Jewish narrative?” It’s a common fear, he says, and one he tries to alleviate by addressing the problem of universalism.

“There’s a danger of resorting to false universalism. This idea that these groups were persecuted for the same reasons in the same ways, which is just not true.”

In “Train,” the Jewish narrative forms the “backbone” of the story. “The Jews were the priority of the Nazis,” Cohen pointed out. “They were center stage in policy, and in Hitler’s narrative.”

Still, there are those who insist, or feel deep down, that to include other persecuted groups in referring to the Holocaust diminishes the scale, intentionality and systemic targeting of Jews. Survivors Elie Wiesel and Simon Wiesenthal disagreed on this point, with Wiesel advocating for the centrality of the Jewish narrative and Wiesenthal advocating for a more inclusive consideration.

“I have sought with Jewish leaders not to talk about six million Jewish dead, but rather about 11 million civilians dead, including six million Jews,” Wiesenthal said in a 1979 interview in the Washington Post. “We reduced the problem to one between Nazis and Jews. Because of this, we lost many friends who suffered with us, whose families share common graves.”

Cohen believes that sharing the narratives of other marginalized victims isn’t just a matter of historical accuracy – it matters today too. He points out that LGBT and Roma citizens are still subject to forms of state-sponsored persecution, particularly in Eastern Europe, and that drawing attention to their treatment under the Nazis underscores the continuity of that oppression. (Both groups were denied reparations by the German government until decades after restitution began for the Jews.)

“We have a responsibility that the nuances of history are remembered,” said Cohen, “and a responsibility to draw connections between the persecution of these communities in the past and their continued persecution today.”

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