My grandfather, W. Louis Cohn was born to a prominent family in Berlin. His family was involved in various industries, from diplomacy to automobiles to music. He grew up in France and moved back to Germany during the initial years of the Nazi regime. His Jewish father, a career diplomat, was no longer permitted to represent the country abroad. As the political situation grew worse and after Jewish people were stripped of their German citizenship, his family moved to Belgium. The morning after the Nazis invaded Belgium, my grandfather was arrested for being German while walking to school and was deported before he could even notify his family. He was just 12 years old. His train, bound for Nazi Germany, stopped in occupied France and left all Jewish passengers at a concentration camp.

My grandfather spent the next year or two in various Nazi concentration camps in France before finally ending up in Mauthausen, a Nazi death camp in Austria. At that camp he knew his only chance for survival was escape and ultimately worked with a handful of fellow prisoners, aided by the French Resistance, to escape by foot. After their escape, he and his comrades walked from Austria to France, shielded by fake French documents. Having grown up in France, his accent did not give away his true German and Jewish identity.

Just weeks before crossing into neutral Spain, my grandfather and his comrades stumbled upon a group of escaped American POWs. While my grandfather’s English was basic, he was able to connect with a man who said he was from Berea, Ohio. Between having a cousin who lived in Cleveland and this new friend he met by chance from Northeast Ohio, he chose to move to Cleveland after the war.

My grandmother is also a Holocaust survivor, although she and her parents were lucky enough to escape Nazi Germany when she was 8 years old via Holland before it was too late. After living for a few months in a crowded NYC apartment, her parents were given the choice to relocate with assistance to either Pittsburgh or Cleveland. Her parents chose Cleveland.

Fast forward over a decade, after my grandfather had moved to the U.S. after fighting back against the Nazis with the French Resistence, U.S., and British armies. My grandfather had to finish high school before he was able to go to college. He studied full-time and worked full-time installing furnaces. He received a call to install a furnace in the house of a German-speaking family on the east side of Cleveland. That house happened to be my grandmother’s. He met her and fell in love. He asked her on a date. She said that she was busy and had other plans (she was a social butterfly—not playing hard to get). He returned and asked her out again. Again, she was busy. He returned a third time and told her that if she was busy again, he would never ask her out again. Luckily, she was free and they went on a date. A few months later they married, then bought a house and started their family.

One of the things my grandfather was asked about the war is why he didn’t hate Germany for what the Nazis had done to his family. He was very clear that he hated the Nazis, but that there were plenty of good people in Nazi Germany who fought back. He would talk about the people who helped his family get out, or his neighbors who safeguarded some of his family’s dearest possessions, and he was clear that not all Germans were Nazis. Because of those words, I made the decision to reclaim my German citizenship. Germany today is not the same as Nazi Germany. It’s a country that’s open, tolerant, and diverse—it reflects exactly the kind of people my grandfather talked about when explaining why he couldn’t hate the country. He was a proud U.S. citizen. He loved Cleveland and this country. But he also taught me to be proud of who I am, to look beyond the surface, and to recognize that there is good in every society—even if you have to look a bit harder to see it.

In my life, I have been fortunate to live in different states and in different countries. I have studied abroad in Spain and Turkey, lived as an expat in Colombia, and I’ve spent summers volunteering in Ecuador and Argentina. Everywhere I go, I represent both of my passports (and Cleveland too, of course!), and I relish every opportunity to connect with people from all walks of life and from every background. This outlook, shaped by my grandfather’s words of wisdom and worldview, is why I consider myself so fortunate to be able to work with globally-minded people from all over the world every day at the Center for International Affairs at Case Western Reserve University.

Cleveland is such a special place. We have people here from every country and background, all with such unique stories, passion, and potential to shape our community’s future. I thank my lucky stars that my grandparents both chose to make this special, wonderful community their own.



Written By:

Jody Bonhard

Coordinator of Communications, Office of Global Strategy

Center for International Affairs at Case Western Reserve University