- No Justice in Germany: The Breslau Diaries, 1933–1941 by Willy Cohn, edited by Norbert Conrads
Since the publication of Victor Klemperer’s diaries in German in 1995 and in English in 1998, diaries penned by European Jews during the Holocaust have garnered sustained scholarly attention and a wide readership. Diaries offer scholars and students unparalleled insight into Jews’ day-to-day existence under the Third Reich, and in particular into antisemitic persecutions that took on increasingly murderous proportions. Diarists analyzed contemporary developments and recorded their emotional states in fleeting moments of reflection that are lost to view in sources produced retrospectively. Oriented toward the future and not the past, diaries constitute a body of sources distinct from memoirs. In memoirs written after 1945, survivors describe the series of horrific events and devastating losses they suffered in the process of escaping [End Page 120] a virtually inescapable death. Diaries, by contrast, record the unfolding of their authors’ lives in Nazi-dominated Europe without knowledge of how the war would end and what their fate would be.
Among an extraordinarily rich and diverse set of sources, the diary of Willy Cohn stands out. It constitutes important reading for scholars and students with an interest in the interrelated histories of German Jewry, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust. Within these broader subject areas, Cohn touches on many more specific topics, including Zionism, German Jewish intellectual life, family relations, gender roles, and Jewish-Christian relations in Breslau. The original manuscripts, held in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, have been accessible to scholars for some time. Now, thanks to Norbert Conrads’ editorial work and Kenneth Kronenberg’s translation from the German, a selection of Cohn’s diary entries from the years 1933 to 1941 are available in English for the first time.
Willy Cohn was born in 1888 in Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland). By the time Hitler acceded to power in 1933, Cohn, like Klemperer, was a veteran diarist. His longstanding habit of keeping a diary, combined with his finely tuned sensitivity to historical sources and methods, prepared him well to comment on the turbulent developments of the Nazi years. As a young man, Cohn had completed a doctorate in history with a dissertation on eleventh- and twelfth-century Norman Sicily. Though excluded from university professorships at least in part because of anti-Jewish prejudice in the Wilhelmine and Weimar eras, Cohn continued to research and write about late medieval Italy throughout his adult life. Ironically, his erstwhile hobby, that is, historical research, became his source of income during the Third Reich. Forced out of his teaching position at Breslau’s Johannes gymnasium in June 1933, Cohn found that he could still earn a meager income lecturing and teaching adult education courses within the Jewish community. His dedication to diary-writing redoubled, as he came to regard it as a form of historical documentation of the fate of the once-vibrant Breslau Jewish community.
Reading Cohn’s account of the final years of that community, the reader gains an intimate perspective on the diarist himself. Cohn’s complex allegiances differed in several dramatic respects from those of Klemperer. First, Cohn and Klemperer held opposite views with respect to assimilation: after serving on the Western Front in World War I and receiving the Iron Cross for bravery, Cohn rejected assimilation and Reform Judaism, becoming instead a committed Zionist and a religiously more observant Jew. Yet, his regular religious observance and his work for various Jewish organizations did not produce in Cohn a strong sense of communal belonging. In early August 1937, Cohn wrote in his diary: “I increasingly suffer from the realization that I so frequently differ in my opinions from those of other Jews. . . . It is not always a pleasure to swim against the tide” (p. 148). Over the course of the 1930s, he became increasingly critical of assimilationism—even to the point of blaming German Jews and their embrace of assimilation for their...