Kelman Cohen pictured in Germany, 1945.Kelman Cohen
Kelman Cohen in Germany, 1945.Kelman Cohen
Kelman Cohen on the streets of London, England, 1946.Kelman Cohen
Kelman Cohen in 2005.Kelman Cohen
"I tried to blend in with the rest of the country, the Anglo-Saxons, because of the racism that went on. And I did things that were kind of stupid when I look back, but tried for them to recognise me as a person."
When the war started I joined the [Canadian] Reserve Army. I tried to blend in with the rest of the country, the Anglo-Saxons, because of the racism that went on. And I did things that were kind of stupid when I look back, but tried for them to recognise me as a person. And I can do things that they could do, or better. Lieutenant Herman treated me like I was his kid brother because I was going on nineteen but I looked like fifteen. I didn’t even shave yet. And he was in “B” Company and I was in “A” Company and this one day he comes looking for me in a Jeep and finds me talking to a bunch of guys. And he gives me this leather jacket, dispatch rider’s jacket. He says, Cohen, he says, take this jacket. It’ll keep you warm. He was looking after me. So anyways, I took the jacket and he patted me on the shoulder and says, good luck. We are going across the Rhine River [in Europe] but don’t tell anybody.
But before all this happened we were there for about ten days and Passover [the Jewish spring festival commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt] was on. And I’m not religious even though my father and mother were. And I wasn’t interested. And he [Lieutenant Herman] asked me go to the Passover service and there was about five trucks that took us to this school that had a gym. And I remember a group of women standing on the corner. As we walked by, and one woman said, “Alle Juden” [German for “all Jews”]. They thought the whole Canadian Army was Jews! And anyways, when I got in for the service, he looked for me. He wanted to make sure I was there. And he just put up his hand as if to, okay, you’re here. And then he made me send flowers for Passover to my mother and I says, no, I’m not sending flowers. He says, you’re going to send flowers. So I had, out of my pay book they deducted, I don’t know how much, and I sent flowers to my mother.
And we moved up and we were held up. We were fighting a German rearguard action. They were holed up in little villages and towns. And we’d walk into traps and this one time, we were pinned down. And they were firing these, I forget what the name of the machine gun, but it fired 1500 rounds a minute. It was very demoralising when you hear these guns going off. And they caught us in the open. We had no cover and yet the bullets would be, I fell beside a fence post and, just like in the movies, the odd chip would fly off and I thought, I got to get out of here. And two guys tried to get up. They never had a chance.
And when you have your ear to the ground you can hear sounds that ordinarily you’d never hear and there was one of our tanks coming up the road. And I thought there was a bend in the road so the Germans didn’t know there was a tank coming up. And I thought once he got close enough I was going to get up and make a run for it. And when the bullets passed me, I got up suddenly, made a run, and by the time the German gunner tried to get me, and it might have been about five, six seconds before he ran out of angle with the gun, but the bullets were whizzing by me left and right. I could hear them whizzing by my head and none hit. I moved with the tank. As the tank moved closer I was moving with the tank. And then somebody yelled, let’s go, let’s go and all the guys they were in the field, they never got up. We lost the guys, maybe ten, twelve.
But you know, it’s a strange thing because when you go in, the first battle you’re in, or the first skirmish you’re in, it really hits you hard. But after that, it doesn’t bother you. It’s just like a killer – it doesn’t bother you. Your conscience doesn’t bother you. And I sort of brainwashed my brain that I’m dead, so nothing bothers you. You keep going up. You get orders. You just do it. You’re like a machine, a robot. That’s how I felt.
And I did stupid things. I can’t believe I’m alive at the stupid things I did. How snipers tried to pick me off. I go into enemy territory just for the lark of it and I go into a farm. Oh, there’s a farmhouse, maybe half a mile up or a quarter-of-a-mile. Are you nuts? Are you going up there? Ah, it’s quiet. I go up there. I could have been killed in a second but I had to prove myself or prove to some people, you see. And I overheard one guy say, oh the crazy Jew, because I took all these chances, but I was felt I was already dead.