On a chilly Sunday morning, more than 60 women came to the Sandler Family Campus to hear from guest speaker Julie Kohner, creator of Voices of the Generations. As the second in a series of “Women’s Cabinet PLUS ONE” events, participants were welcomed by Cabinet Outreach and Engagement chair Janet Mercadante, who was followed by Holocaust Commission member Betsy Karotkin, who introduced the speaker. Co-hosted by the Women’s Cabinet and Holocaust Commission, the presentation centered around Kohner’s memories of Walter and Hanna—her mother and father.
Walter Kohner came to the United States on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power and just as the situation in Europe was becoming untenable for Jews. He came with the intention of settling in Los Angeles (where his brother had been living for some time) and then sending for his young finance, Hanna. Their plans were foiled when Hanna’s family began moving from country to country in an effort to outrun Nazi persecution, which was sweeping across Europe. Eventually Hanna and her family were sent to work camps and then to extermination camps. Hanna survived four camps. When the war was over, through a series of inquiries, Walter managed to find her, and he traveled to Europe to finally bring her home. Their story is documented in their autobiography Hanna and Walter: A Love Story.
Less than a decade after WWII and the fall of Hitler and the Nazis, Hanna Kohner, living in Los Angeles and married to Walter, a Hollywood Artists representative, appeared on what many would call the very first reality TV show ever—Ralph Edward’s This is Your Life.
Kohner showed the video of the show. Hanna was a beautiful, slender and glamorous young American woman. Perfectly coiffed and outfitted with white gloves and perfect makeup, one would have been shocked to learn that at the time of her liberation, Hannah (although still slender) was a frail, sick and emaciated girl. In his trademark talk-show host style Ralph Edwards asked Hanna many questions about her life—before, during and after the Holocaust.
For many viewers, this episode was the first time that they had “met” a Holocaust survivor and the first time that they learned about the horrors of the Holocaust. The highlight of the show was a dramatic reunion with Hannah’s brother Freidl (who was flown to the U.S. from Israel, where he’d emigrated after the war). Hanna had not seen her brother since before the war. The emotional reunion made for far more than TV ratings. It was a moving moment for all in the room.
Kohner’s presentation then “fast-forwarded” about 30 years to the mid-1980’s and a short video clip (this one in color, rather than black and white) where Walter and Hanna are being interviewed about their book on a local morning talk show in San Diego, Calif. The interviewer asked how Hanna felt about the growing number of Holocaust deniers. Her response was that she was, of course angry about them, but furthermore, they made her more determined than ever to share her story with others, painful though it might be, in order to put a face to the story of so many millions lost.
During the Q & A session following her presentation, Kohner displayed a gold charm bracelet. That bracelet was given to Hanna Kohner by the producers and advertisers of This is Your Life, and the charms it contained represented the people, places and events which comprised the story of her life. It was a hard-fought and meaningful life, and a living lesson to future generations.
by Amy Zelenka, UJFT Women’s Campaign director