The torch of legacy: Making it personal
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The torch of legacy: Making it personal

Julie Kohner and her 14-year-old son Danny will be traveling from California to spend this year’s Yom HaShoah week in New Jersey, carrying the torch of legacy for her mother, Hannah Bloch Kohner, a Holocaust survivor who died in 1990, and her father, who fled Europe in 1938 and later became a GI who worked in an Allied radio station in Luxembourg after the Normandy invasion.

The pair will make their presentation in a series of venues where they will tell a remarkable Holocaust story, one now linked to the early days of television. That’s because Kohner’s mother was probably the first survivor (in May 1953) to appear on national TV in a broadcast of "This Is Your Life," with Ralph Edwards.

The show is described in a 1999 New York Times article as having been watched by millions. Hannah Kohner had been chosen for the program without her knowledge, and was sitting in the audience next to actor Jeffrey Hunter, who then escorted her to the stage. During the program, among other surprises, she was reunited with her brother whom she hadn’t seen since she’d fled Prague for Amsterdam in 1939. The Times reported that "[t]he broadcast appears to be little more than vintage shlock, but it is actually an important historical artifact." The paper also noted that the 6 million weren’t mentioned and the fact that Hannah Kohner’s parents and first husband were murdered by the Germans was quickly glossed over.

How Kohner came to be chosen for the show remains a bit of a mystery.

Julie Kohner, who was very close to her parents and became their primary caregiver as they approached the end of their lives, was active for a time in the Second Generation movement as president of the Sons and Daughters of the 1939 Club. She told The Jewish Standard that while she was growing up her parents always told her their story. "They encouraged and prepared me to become their voice for future generations," she said. For her, their saga of survival and their love affair was a story of renewal and rebirth. That’s why teaching the story of the Holocaust, through her mother’s eyes, came "naturally."

-Her parents’ book, "Hannah and Walter: A Love Story," took seven years to write and was published by Random House in 1984. It was, above all, the story of their love, which began while Hannah Bloch and Walter Kohner were ice-skating in Prague in 1935. Walter, the dashing "older man" was studying to be an actor, but increasing anti-Jewish legislation prevented him from finding work. In 1938, their dream of a future together dashed by current events, he and Hannah bid each other goodbye as he literally headed for Hollywood. Though they had spoken of Hannah’s joining him in America, Hitler had other plans. After fleeing to Holland, Hannah met and married Carl Benjamin. Then, in 1944, they were deported to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. She lost all her family, she thought, and was liberated in Vocklabruck, Austria, where she had been a slave laborer in a parachute factory.

Soon after the war ended, Walter discovered that Hannah was alive and began to search for her. First he found her brother Friedl in Karlsbad, and then he found Hannah in Amsterdam. He brought her to Hollywood, where he had developed a career as an agent.

Their daughter, Julie, the former director of marketing for The Hollywood Reporter, quit her job in 199′ to raise her son and develop "Voices of the Generations," a Holocaust-education program that tells her parents’ story. Though it began as a b’nai mitzvah program she began teaching at a local Hebrew school, it has become so popular she travels across the country to give it.

She told the Standard that her presentation brings the story to an "intimate level. By telling an individual story you become more effective than if you are trying to talk about 6 million people. That’s what the educators want to hear, and they know children can relate better to one story, to one survivor. When my mom had to run for her life, she was just 15, the same age as many of the people I speak to. Because of that, they can relate to her, and that’s the best way to get the message out."

Kohner screens a video of the old "This Is Your Life" episode for her audiences; then she speaks about her family’s history and her parents’ book, which was reissued in 1997.-

She and her son will give the annual Joseph Gotthelf Memorial lecture during Shabbat services at Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne on Friday, April ‘8, which begin at 8 p.m. For information, call (973) 694-6565.

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