Herb Kohn did not innately have the ability to diffuse combative situations. His understanding of how to negotiate conflict with minimum noise grew out of his experience fleeing Nazi persecution during the Holocaust. Now, after a successful career with an international law firm, Herb has developed a second career as a mediator.
By the time Herb was born in Amsterdam in 1938, his family—mother, father, sister, and grandparents—had already moved from their homeland of Nuremberg, Germany, to Holland in the Netherlands, to escape increasing anti-Semitism. The move made sense at the time: the region had been a place in which Jews and non-Jews had lived together amicably. They did not anticipate the Nazis’ march into the Netherlands a year later or the gradual erosion of the country’s solidarity with Jews.
“It turned out that daily life in Holland was no different from Germany,” Herb says. “We had to wear yellow armbands marked ‘Jew’ anytime we went outside.”
The Nazi segregation measures destroyed communities, isolated Jews, and deprived them of their livelihoods. Government cards marked with the letter J were doled out to all Jews in the Netherlands. Jewish personnel were dismissed from local government and civic positions. By 1941, the Germans restricted Jews from earning more than about $150 per month and banned them from hotels, beaches, swimming pools, public parks, zoos, concerts, and other arts and sporting events, as well as sleeping and dining cars on trains.
“We weren’t allowed to eat in restaurants or go to movie theaters,” Herb recalls. “If we rode public transportation, we had to stand in the lowest-class section, even if there were empty seats.”
Only Jews had nightly curfews from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. German officials prohibited Jews from having telephones in their homes or using public phones. The Dutch Schutzstaffel (“protection squad,” shortened to SS) began to increase in number. These Dutch citizens, schooled by the Nazis, would make unpredictable house inspections, often abducting entire Jewish families to be imprisoned or put to death. The Kohn family lived in fear of being discovered.
One day, after he became ill, Herb’s mother took him to the doctor, where he was diagnosed with scarlet fever. A week later, in the middle of the night, a pounding on the front door awoke the family. Herb’s grandfather opened the door to find Dutch SS men.
“Let me see your identification,” they said. “Who else is living here?”
“My wife, my daughter and her husband, and our two grandchildren,” the grandfather replied.
“We’d better take a look for ourselves,” the Dutch SS said.
“You are welcome to come in,” said the quick-thinking grandfather, “but I feel that it is my duty to warn you that there is a case of scarlet fever in the house.”
The men left immediately, knocking on other doors, and arresting other people. The family later learned that little Herb had caught a virus, but not scarlet fever; however, the doctor’s misdiagnosis likely averted a house search and saved their lives.
Herb’s family scrambled to find other places to take refuge. “By the time I was three, we had moved multiple times within Holland,” Herb recounts. “We didn’t have our own house. We lived in attics and basements of other people’s homes.”
When Herb was four, his family decided to take off for Switzerland, whose policy of armed neutrality offered a safe hideaway. His grandfather learned of a Dutch Catholic baker who had helped another Jewish family escape. The baker agreed to do the same for the Kohn family, for a fee of 7,000 guilders per person to cover forged passports and other necessary expenses. The family sold their valuables—jewelry, china, and foreign currency—which they had hidden with other friendly Dutch non-Jews, in exchange for f42,000 in 500- and 1,000-guilder bills (approximately $23,000 in 1940 currency). Shortly after they paid the baker, the Nazis repealed all 500- and 1,000-guilder bills, leaving the family fearful that their efforts and loss had been for nothing. However, due to bureaucratic delays from Nazi Germany, the repealing order did not immediately reach the Dutch government, and the underground money was transferred smoothly.
The escape plan involved taking a train from Amsterdam to Breda, sixty-five miles away. A guide from the Dutch Resistance would meet the family at the Breda station and lead them on bicycles fifteen more miles into Belgium. “Everyone had bicycles at the time, so it wasn’t a big deal to see a family on bikes,” Herb says. Everything was set. They bought the train tickets the evening before the escape and checked their bicycles at the station.
The next morning, Herb’s sister’s kindergarten teacher drove them to the train station, riding with the family to Breda, where she caught a return train to Amsterdam. The family tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, riding in separate train cars. The Dutch guide was waiting for them in Breda, wearing a white sport shirt with the collar left open, as they had been told he would. When they unloaded the luggage car, Herb’s father discovered that his bicycle had a flat tire. Fortunately, there was a repair shop nearby.
Herb sat on a makeshift child’s seat that was mounted on the handlebars of his mother’s bicycle, and his sister sat on the luggage carrier of their father’s bike. The grandparents would leave separately, to reunite in Brussels, where altogether they would board a train to travel 400 more miles to Zurich.
“We pretended to be on a family outing, but we were actually riding to save our lives,” Herb notes. “Our family was moving from one country to another, but we only carried two small suitcases filled with food and necessary possessions. We adopted a persona of nonchalantly enjoying the pleasantries of our excursion, yet I was firmly instructed to behave and not utter a word during the entire trip.”
It was a warm day in June, but Herb’s father wore two full suits, one over the other. Herb wore three layers of clothes, including a long-sleeved wool jacket. Herb’s mother secretly replaced his jacket buttons with gold Dutch guilders, each covered in cloth.
In one village, they were stopped by Dutch gendarmes, who inspected their forged identification and then told them to go on their way. Burdened by two full suits, Herb’s father fell behind, riding so slowly at one point that his bicycle fell over. Although Herb’s eight-year-old sister badly skinned her leg, she understood the seriousness of the ride and stayed calm.
When they reached the Belgium border, a second guide was waiting. According to the plan, he would wear a customs agent uniform, so if bumped into German patrols, the guide could fabricate a story about arresting them for smuggling. He would briefly accompany the family into Belgium before departing. However, this new guide was not wearing the appropriate uniform. Nervously, he handed the family their new Belgian identification cards and instructed them to move along quickly.
There was no time to memorize the information on the ID cards. The family would have to do that later. Herb’s parents noticed that the surnames on their cards were different from each other. Such small irregularities could mean the difference between life and death for their family and those who were brave enough to assist them, but they continued their journey to Brussels.
Here, they made a mistake. Without realizing it, the family re-entered Dutch territory. Seeing their Belgian papers, Dutch SS soldiers arrested them, ordering the family to follow their squad to the police station on their bicycles. The original guide whom the family hired to lead them on the trek was taken away. “We never saw him again,” Herb notes.
One soldier noticed the surname discrepancy on the ID cards, then looked at Herb and his sister. “Are you related?” he asked. “Well, yes, in a way,” Herb’s father answered. “You don’t have to be formally married to have children together.” The soldier laughed, then winked at Herb’s father, as they rode to the police station.
“My parents had hoped to pay some sort of fine in exchange for being released, but we had no Belgian money.” As they dutifully followed the soldiers to the police station, Herb’s mother noticed a farmhouse along the road ahead and suddenly whispered to him, “Get ready, because we are about to fall off the bicycle.” His mother pretended to faint. “We fell with such force,” Herb exclaims. “To this day, I have a scar on my leg from that fall.”
It was as if all the stars aligned in their favor, as Herb’s mother’s concocted accident caused the distraction she wanted. The Dutch police were sympathetic and carried her into the farmhouse. As she lay bleeding on the parlor couch, Herb’s father quietly negotiated with the farmer inside to exchange Dutch guilders for one hundred Belgian francs at an exorbitant rate. Herb’s mother feigned unconsciousness until she heard her husband tell the soldiers that she would be alright, if they proceeded slowly. The family remounted their bicycles and followed the Dutch police to a German border-control station, where Nazi soldiers stepped out to investigate the family.
“You are welcome to search our luggage,” Herb’s father said, hoping they would not, since they had packed food with Dutch labels. Another SS soldier interrogated Herb’s father.
“Your name is… Frank?” the soldier asked, looking at the fake identification.
“Yes, Frank,” his father lied.
“And your first name is Oscar?”
“Yes, Oscar Frank.”
“You spell your last name with a C or K? Oh, I see… a K.”
“Yes, a K.” Herb’s father had picked up on the soldier’s cues before responding.
“Which province do you live in?”
“Flandern.” Herb’s father had no idea where Flandern was but responded with answers as confidently as he could muster.
When the questions became even more difficult, Herb’s mother broke the tension by starting to cry, showing her arm, still bleeding from the bicycle fall. After the interrogation, Herb’s father was ordered to pay a fine of one hundred francs, the exact amount he had received from the farmhouse exchange. “After my father paid the fine, we were released from the Nazi grip. However, that delay caused us to miss our train to Switzerland. As a result, we stayed hidden in Belgium four more years.”
As in Holland, the family secretly hid in dingy attics and lightless basements of other people’s homes throughout Brussels. Some people took them in because they thought it was the right thing to do, and others because Herb’s family paid them. “My mother and grandmother worked for the people who took us in by cleaning their houses and performing odd jobs such as scaling fish.”
Surviving in Brussels was a contrast from the life Herb’s family knew back in Germany. Herb’s grandparents had owned a children’s book publishing company in Fürth, and his father—a lawyer—owned two electrical parts factories. But they could not live the lifestyle they knew before. Nazi authorities had forced Herb’s grandfather to sell his lucrative business for a mere one hundred dollars. Herb’s father lost both of his factories.
Herb’s parents and grandparents tried to give him and his sister as normal a childhood as possible, but Herb’s entire life up to that point was focused on running from one place to the next in order to stay alive. As an infant in Holland, his crib was a dresser drawer. He never owned toys or played outside. He had never eaten desserts, never heard of ice cream.
“My daily routine was: you get up. Maybe you eat a piece of bread that morning. Maybe you don’t. And you don’t call attention to yourself,” Herb recalls.
He learned to sleep on the edge of his bed, due to the V-1 buzz bomb created in Nazi Germany. “The V-1 would fly a few miles before the loud engine would stop. That’s when the bomb would drop. If we heard the noise above the house, we knew we were safe, because the bomb was still moving. But if the noise stopped and all we heard was silence, we knew we were in harm’s way.” The family would bolt to the basement. “In one house, there was a coal cellar which must have been considered the safest place to be. It was very dark and cramped. To this day, I still sleep on the edge of my bed, and I am still claustrophobic.”
One day in Brussels, Herb’s grandfather boarded a bus which was stopped and searched by the Nazis. He had been carrying false, non-Jewish identification, but was taken to the local prison and later transported to Auschwitz. “We never saw him again.”
By 1944, the Kohn family moved about forty-five miles southwest of Brussels, finding refuge in the rural French-speaking village of Rozier, where they hid in a farmhouse basement and made connections in the local Catholic church. “The priest and nuns allowed my sister and me to freely attend the Catholic school,” Herb says. “They protected us. They knew our true identities but never told the other students. My sister and I became fluent in French as well as Dutch, so we seemed to fit in with the other kids. We attended school every day and Sunday service at the Catholic Church, using the last name of Peters. I don’t know how we acquired that name, but I had learned by then to be low-key and keep my head down.”
The name worked. Even though the family was still in hiding, it was in Rozier that Herb and his sister gained some semblance of stability. Herb learned how to play with other children and even discovered that he could run very fast. The family remained in Rozier until 1945, the end of World War II. Herb remembers precisely: “We knew the war was over when we saw British airplanes fly over and dip their wings to us.”
After the war, the family rode the train back to Amsterdam, where they rented a small duplex as they awaited permission to immigrate to the United States. Two years passed, and in 1947, when Herb was nine, they were approved. “We were so excited,” Herb recalls. “There was a nearby hotel which I passed every day on the way to school. The day we found out that we were approved, my mother walked into the hotel restaurant and celebrated by buying a well-deserved cup of coffee.”
The family sailed across the Atlantic from Stockholm to the United States, greeted by the Statue of Liberty as the ship entered New York Harbor, the first stop before they arrived in Kansas City, Missouri, where their sponsor lived.
It didn’t really matter that Herb spoke not a word of English; he approached his new life with gusto. Within a year, he spoke perfect English. He paid attention to the clothes Americans wore and learned social mores of the day. “What I knew was that I wanted to be an American. I wanted to adapt, and I did.” The speed he discovered as a boy in Rozier earned him a track scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he received his undergraduate and law degrees, and met his wife.
“Some fraternity brothers and I went to see a movie,” Herb reflects. “As I walked into the theater, I saw the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I met her and decided she was the one I wanted to marry. It turned out that her name was Nancy, and now some sixty years of her being my everything, she’s still the one I would choose.”
Over the years, Herb was named to the annual list of Best Lawyers in America fourteen times, and was bestowed Distinguished Alumni of the Year by the University of Michigan Law School. His support of numerous civic and cultural organizations has garnered him unexpected recognition, including naming the Herb Kohn Center for Social Practice by the Kansas City Art Institute board of trustees, to honor his commitment to equality and social justice.
The ingenuity of Herb’s parents, the resolve of the Catholic priest and nuns, and the generosity of the multitude of households who protected the family in peril along their journey gave Herb some key life lessons which contribute to his mediation skills.
“I learned how to keep going in the midst of challenges, to find a way that works. I discovered that people can be loving, kind, and courageous. There were those who didn’t turn away, who said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to do something to help. I can’t just do nothing.’ And they did.”
Jane Chu describes the contributions of immigrants to the United States through her stories and illustrations. A visual artist living in New York, she served as the eleventh chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts. Support of this immigrant entrepreneur story is provided by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.