By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Carl Cohn was a child when Nazi leaders told him he was no longer German, but a half-breed, a Mischling. Carl attended Sunday School at a Lutheran church. His parents were Christian. But his last name meant rabbi, and somewhere in his family line, there was Jewish blood. In Nazi Germany, he was suddenly an outsider.
A generation later, Dr. Cynthia Crane was intrigued by the experiences of her father, who changed his name to Carl Crane as a young adult in the United States.
A University of Cincinnati English professor, Dr. Crane won a Fulbright scholarship in 1996 and traveled to Germany to research the Mischlinge, what Hitler called children of mixed Christian-Jewish marriages.
She discovered families torn apart, subjected to arcane Nazi rules. Children like her father were beaten. Many fled the country. Others were sent to concentration camps. It took six months to find the first woman willing to talk about her experiences.
Dr. Crane chronicles the lives of 10 Mischlinge women in her new book, Divided Lives: The Untold Stories of Jewish-Christian Women in Nazi Germany (St. Martin’s Press; $26.95). She talked with the Enquirer’s Richelle Thompson about what she learned, about what happens to the psyche when you’re told you don’t belong and about how it feels to be an outsider.
Question: What was the inspiration for your research and ultimately the book?
Answer: I started talking to my grandmother at her house more often. She was starting to tell me more and more stories about what happened in Nazi Germany, and I became more interested. And then she told she had written a book. I didn’t know that. She had thrown it in the basement. She had written it in the 1950s when they first came over (to the United States). She had written it from 19 years of journal notes from World War I and into World War II. She had sent it out at one point to get it published. And it hadn’t been published.
I had no idea what it would be like. She’s an artist, and I knew that she had written a lot. I was just amazed how good it was. I wanted to start working on it.
Q: Why was it so difficult to find women willing to talk?
A: There were not people running down the street, saying “I’m a child of a mixed marriage, and I just can’t wait to talk to you.’ It was secret.
They were reticent to talk because they had been living with a hidden past. They were actually Germans who all of a sudden one day, they woke up and were told they were Jewish because they had a Jewish parent or a Jewish background.
For 12 years, they fell under all the anti-Jewish legislation and they were no longer German. But the war ends, and they’re Germans again, and they’re living among their persecutors. They don’t want to talk about that. They don’t want to talk about having been half-Jewish or a quarter Jewish.
And I say these terms as according to how Hitler said them. The women wanted to keep that a secret so they could live with fellow Germans and not think about what had happened.
Q: Some of the women were sharing their stories for the first time. Tell me about Ruth Yost, the first woman you interviewed.
A: I brought (to the interview) a friend along with me who was German. Ruth wasn’t sure she wanted to go ahead with the interview until she knew without doubt that this German woman with me wasn’t a Nazi. She asked over and over, “Are you a Nazi? Are you a Nazi?’ She would talk to me because she knew my family had been run out and that made her feel safe, but to have a German there, she was very concerned.
What I liked was her passion for the underdog. For anyone who was being treated poorly in her country. She always fought for those who didn’t have a chance, including the gypsies.
She was always outspoken and very passionate. That’s why when she did kill herself (a year after the interview), I was so surprised. Because she had such a passion for life.
Ruth’s father (who was Jewish) escaped when she was 8 years old. He ended up in England and never came back to Germany again. So she didn’t even see him for 20 years. And they had been very close. She’s the only one who had actually ever gone to a synagogue. Mother was Lutheran and wanted to educate everything that was Jewish out of her. So she and her mother did not have a good relationship.
When the Russians came in and she was in Eastern Berlin, she was raped by Russian soldiers at gunpoint. Then the man she had been with most of her life had died. I think all of that contributed (to her suicide).
Q: There are many books about the Holocaust. What makes your book different?
A: It’s about people who survived from mixed marriages, from Jewish-Christian mixed marriages. You have this angle of religion and race. Also how do people survive trauma? What coping mechanisms do they use? It also goes into gender issues and ethnic issues. It covers everything. (The book explores) how we survive as human beings. It shows how cruel man can be to man. I think we can see that even today. It keeps repeating itself; unfortunately, history repeats itself.
Q: You talk about this being a life journey. How are you different today than you were six years ago?
A: When I went to Hamburg, that’s when I really felt that there was a piece of history that had been missing, and it all came together. A picture of my great-grandfather was hanging in the Rathaus because he’d been the finance senator of Hamburg. There was a street named after him. There was a school named after him. I went to the cemetery and saw the gravestone. I saw the home where they used to live. I saw my dad’s home where he lived.
(It was like) I grew up in the twilight zone. There was this twilight zone I imagined. It’s almost like you’ve been having this dream all your life and suddenly you’re there and it’s real.
Q: How is your book relevant today? Who should read it?
A: You don’t necessarily have to have that Jewish-Christian experience but also a racial mix, anything that makes you feel outside. It is about outsiders.
(The book deals with) being split between two worlds and trying to figure out what your identity is. I think these stories show what a struggle it is to figure out who you are.
I think all different kinds of people can learn from these stories, and walk away saying, “I can really relate to that.’
Because they’re not just Holocaust stories, or stories of the Third Reich and Hitler. They’re about people’s struggles in saying, “Who am I? Where do I belong?’