In the immediate decades after World War II, the systematic murder of 6,000,000 Jews as part of Nazi genocide had not acquired a name of its own. When I learned about the fate of the Jews during the Final Solution, during religious school classes and temple youth groups in the 1960s, “Holocaust” hadn’t entered the public lexicon in this context.
But 60 years ago this spring, the Six Million acquired a face in this country.
Her name was Hanna Bloch Kohner.
During a live broadcast of the “This Is Your Life” television show from the El Capitan theater in Los Angeles, host Ralph Edwards surprised Kohner in the show’s studio audience. A television program that had first achieved a large viewership – and a reputation as maudlin sentimentality – on radio, “This Is Your Life” surprised celebrity guests and told inspirational stories replete with reunions with folks they hadn’t seen for years.
Kohner, no celebrity, was a Holocaust survivor.
For a half hour, Edwards, who earlier had worked as a producer on the “Truth or Consequences” show, whence came “This Is Your Life,” dramatically read from the iconic red book that contained the details of Kohner’s life: born in Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region, she had survived a series of death camps, lost most of her family to the Nazis, aborted a child in Auschwitz to save her life, cried when her first love left for the US with a promise to send for her, fell in love with another refugee who died in the Shoah, was reunited with and married her first love, Walter Kohner, who had returned to Nazi Europe as a Staff Sergeant in the US Army and tracked down the sweetheart he had never forgotten.
The couple settled in Los Angeles, where Walter Kohner, a Hollywood agent, had met Edwards. Edwards heard about Hanna’s story and decided to feature her on one of his programs, the first non-celebrity (actor or athlete, etc.) to achieve this cultural honor on the show that was on the air from 1952 to 1961.
Hanna Kohner was the first Holocaust survivor living in the US whose story became widely known in this country. In the next decade, Edwards would feature other survivors (and rescuers) on the show, as would Jack Bailey’s “Queen For a Day,” on which studio audiences would indicate by their applause which of three women with lachrymose narratives was most deserving of a range of prizes the show awarded the day’s winner.
In those days, the survivors TV audiences saw were young and attractive, looking ahead to their futures in the freedom of the US, not the ill-and-aging people who are today’s extant survivors, looking back in sorrow. Hanna Bloch Kohner was 32, vibrant and smiling, when Edwards surprised her.
Soppy reality shows, hokey by current standards, told Americans about the Holocaust. Not news programs, not documentaries, not guest speakers at synagogues. Back then, who wanted to hear horror stories?
“Throughout the 1950s and most of the 1960s it was barely on the Jewish communal or theological agenda,” Deborah Lipstadt wrote in “America and the Memory of the Holocaust, 1950-1965.”
“Survivors who came to this country in the later 1940s and the 1950s were often discouraged from discussing their experiences,” Lipstadt wrote. “They were told Americans were not interested.”
Enter, “This Is Your Life.”
Edwards, who was not Jewish, brought the Holocaust into Americans’ living rooms.
The Kohners’ daughter, Julie (who would see a screening of the “This Is Your Life” episode from a 16mm film projector at her family’s seder each year), is now working to keep her parents’ story (and the wider story of survivors) alive; Walter Kohner died in 1996; Hanna, in 1990.
Through her Voices of the Generations non-profit educational organization, Julie Kohner speaks around the US. She has developed an educational television program, drawn up a school curriculum, and created an “Echoes of the Past” web 2.9 platform on which children and grandchildren of survivors record their family stories on video.
Julie Kohner is using state-of-the-art technology to keep the legacy of the Holocaust, and of her parents, alive today.
As Ralph Edwards did 60 years ago this spring.