Nazi. Holocaust. Loot. Reparations. Restitution.
These are not words heard in most Jewish homes on a daily basis, but for most of our 23 years of marriage, they were heard every day in our home, because they were locked into the very fiber of my wife’s being.
And it wasn’t just words. It also was books. Books, most Shoah-related, filled the shelves in two rooms of our house. These words and books all played a role in defining my wife’s life.
I recently gave those books to the Teaneck Public Library in my wife’s memory.
Her name was Marilyn Cohen Henry. That was the name on which she had built her reputation as a journalist. After graduating from Rutgers University and obtaining a masters in statistics from Penn State, she returned home to St. Augustine, Fla., and took a job as a reporter for the Jacksonville Times-Union. She quickly rose to become its wire editor — the person responsible for sorting through and editing the seemingly never-ending news feeds from the Associated Press, United Press International, and Reuters.
For Marilyn, though, living and working in the northernmost part of Florida (or, as she often described it, the southernmost part of Georgia), meant something was missing: purpose. She took a reporting job on the financial desk at Newsday on Long Island. Soon, she was its night business editor.
Clearly, she had a promising career at Newsday, but she still felt something was missing. She would find it, she believed, by making aliyah. That is how she got to the Jerusalem Post.
We met in Jerusalem in September 1988 and were married in December. We were going to live in Israel, but Marilyn decided that we had to move back to New Jersey temporarily, for personal family reasons. We put our possessions in a warehouse, and came here. First we moved to Hackensack; a few years later, we made our home in Teaneck, where I still live.
The transition to New Jersey at first proved too much for Marilyn, and she returned to Jerusalem and to the Post a few months later, but our separation proved even more difficult. She returned to New Jersey and took up her new job as the New York area correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.
Again, she found purpose still lacking. Covering the Jewish organizational world, and the goings-on at the United Nations, simply did not give her a sense of fulfillment.
She thought she would be a better reporter for an Israeli newspaper if she had a better understanding of the Islamic world, so she began amassing an impressive collection of books on Islam and enrolled in a master’s program at Columbia University for a degree in Islamic history. Her thesis, on the Sunni-Shiite rift, so impressed the late Dr. Fouad Ajami that he encouraged her to pursue a doctorate. Her adviser, Dr. Peter Awn (she affectionately referred to him as “Peter the Great”), similarly urged her to do so.
While she still was considering pursuing her doctorate, she met two men and the direction of her life changed forever — Rabbi Israel Miller and Mr. Saul Kagan, may their memories be for a blessing. They were respectively the president and the founding director of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Returning to Israel now was put off indefinitely, in part because a warehouse fire destroyed all of our possessions there, and in greater part because Marilyn had found her purpose in life: to bring to public attention the need for complete justice for the survivors of the Shoah and for their families. She could do that best from her base in the United States.
Immediately after her first meeting with Rabbi Miller and Saul Kagan, she proposed to her editors a change in her job description. She would head the New York bureau, but from there she also would cover Holocaust-related news from Eastern and Central Europe. Her Jerusalem Post editors agreed.
Marilyn immediately immersed herself in learning everything she could about the Shoah, mainly by amassing yet another library of books, numbering over 200 by the time of her death in 2011. She read every one, and kept extensive notes. She was particularly interested in restitution issues, and in repatriation of Jewish cultural property. She also began making regular fact-finding trips to Europe.
Soon Marilyn became recognized as the go-to person for information and advice on Holocaust restitution matters. While such words as Nazi, loot, reparations, and restitution now were everyday words in our home, after a while there was another unusual feature: telephone calls from the U.S. State Department, or attorneys involved in restitution cases, or from ambassadors involved in restitution matters, each picking Marilyn’s brain about one issue or another.
Judah Gribetz, the New York attorney and “special master” who prepared the plan of allocation and distribution for U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman in the 1996-97 Swiss bank Holocaust restitution suits, said this of Marilyn following her death: “The journalism profession and the Jewish world have lost a shining star at the top of her game.
“Since meeting her in 1999, I have marveled at Marilyn’s wisdom and knowledge of the complex world of Holocaust restitution,” he said. “Her more than 100 articles about this lawsuit reflect her unswerving and outspoken commitment to Holocaust survivors.”
In 1997, another event occurred that pushed Marilyn even further into the restitution arena. Then New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau ordered the seizure of a painting on display at the Museum of Modern Art — Egon Schiele’s famous “Portrait of Wally.” The painting was on loan from the Leopold Museum in Vienna, and it also had been looted from a Jewish art dealer named Lea Bondi during World War II.
Many more books soon were added to our growing Shoah collection as Marilyn sought to master this thorny field. She also took a side job as a contributing editor to ArtNews, and began covering the field of cultural property restitution in a big way.
Morgenthau, who considered Marilyn a friend, later called her “a remarkable person and a great reporter — unequaled in her understanding of the U.S. Jewish community and its relationship to Israel.”
Marilyn was the author of “Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference” (Vallentine Mitchell), with a foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert (2007), a contributor to the Encyclopedia Judaica and the American Jewish Year Book. In addition to the Jerusalem Post, articles by her appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Forward, and Aufbau, and in publications in Germany, Switzerland, Britain, and the Netherlands. She also served as an archivist for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Nearly 300 people attended a memorial service for Marilyn, and heard remarks from Saul Kagan, Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, and Gideon Taylor of the JDC, as well as two ambassadors — a former U.S. ambassador to Germany and an Israeli ambassador who was involved in restitution issues.
A restitution conference in Manhattan sponsored by New York University stood for a moment of silence in her memory.
There was, of course, yet another aspect to Marilyn — the rebbetzin of what then was known as Temple Israel Community Center | Congregation Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park. The late Donald Rosenberg, a longtime former president of the shul, said, “She did her job as rebbetzin — she tried hard to bring the Temple Israel community together.”
But, he added, “she didn’t want to be called the rebbetzin; she wanted to be called Marilyn.”
In fact, she was vehement about it. She did not see herself in the mold of my late aunt Esther Saltzman or the Teaneck Jewish Center’s Aviva Feldman, about whom she wrote a column of high praise.
Her attitude changed while covering an American Jewish group’s mission to Prague. Late on a Friday afternoon, the mission’s organizers announced a very non-Shabbat-oriented activity for that evening, after Shabbat would have begun. She protested, saying it was unseemly for a Jewish organization to hold such an event. When she was told the activity was appropriate, given the people on the mission, she declared: “Don’t tell me I’m wrong. I’m a rebbetzin.”
Her first email to me after Shabbat said, “I can’t believe I called myself ‘rebbetzin.’” From that point on, she gladly accepted the title, but in its Hebrew form, “rabbanit.”
Marilyn’s tombstone reads, “Her people were her passion; justice for survivors was her mission.”
Beyond her work, her legacy is her extensive Holocaust library and the more modest Islamic collection. It is my hope that donating both to the Teaneck Public Library will inspire others to pick up where she left off.
May her memory be for a blessing.