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BOOKS Gay NU professor authors YA Holocaust novel
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Liz Baudler
2015-03-31

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"I'm an accidental everything," joked Danny M. Cohen, a Northwestern University professor who specializes in Holocaust education. "An accidental fiction writer, an accidental academic."

While Cohen, author of the recent YA novel Train, dreamed of writing as child, he said he never even intended to get a master's degree. Cohen's husband is Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov—who Cohen described as "my partner in crime," citing their human rights work as part of their bond—and after they fell in love in London, he became the catalyst for the British-born Cohen's emigration. As DOMA did not allow same-sex couples to sponsor each other's citizenship, Cohen only attended grad school to stay in the United States.

Cohen now directs The Unsilence Project, a human-rights education nonprofit. Train adds to its "Overlapping Triangles" curriculum. "If someone was homosexual and a Jew, some of them were forced to wear a pink triangle over a yellow triangle to create a pink and yellow star," Cohen explained. "The Nazis were very aware that individuals could fall into multiple categories."

The Holocaust is in Cohen's blood—his Jewish relatives may have died at Auschwitz and Sobibor—but he focuses on the Holocaust's hidden victims: the Roma, Sinti, homosexuals and disabled. "We often mention them but it's usually a sort of superficial, kind of a tokenistic inclusion," Cohen said. "We rarely actually go in depth and study, well, what are those individuals' experiences in this history, and how do those experiences maybe inform our understanding of the history."

Eventually Cohen realized his academic work "wasn't having the impact that it needed to have on the mainstream collective memories." He wanted to bring those hidden stories to the general public, especially classrooms. "Teachers said "we don't have time to teach one book on homosexuals, or one book on the Roma or one book on the Jews," Cohen said. While he was up for the challenge of writing the stories that became Train, he didn't want it to feel contrived.

He needn't have worried. Train's six main characters' contradictions and complications make them reassuringly human rather than historical puppets. They form complex portraits of young love, sibling rivalry, and fading friendship. Narratives naturally intertwine—a Christian girl has a Jewish stepbrother, a Roma and Jew form a gay couple. "Unlike like many Holocaust fictions, there's no straight male protagonist," Cohen said. Indeed, four of the six protagonists are female.

Cohen's museum experiences—he trained docents at the Illinois Holocaust Museum—influenced his writing. "I definitely draw a line against environments where they manipulate the learner into thinking they have experienced that moment in history. We can't know what it was like to be in a rail car on our way to a Nazi camp." Yet Cohen chose to write a rail car scene for Train. "I struggled, only because I take this position against trying to understand that experience. When it comes to human suffering, we can empathize and sympathize, and we can try to understand, but we have to admit we never will."

"It's one of the last scenes I wrote. It was the most frightening and intimidating to write, and I chose to write it in the most factual way possible. All throughout, we get a sense of [the characters'] deep emotions, their panic and their fear and their hope and their secrets and lies that they're keeping and telling. But when we get to this scene, at no point do we know what that character is feeling. We only know what that character is seeing."

In earlier drafts, Cohen said readers felt Train was for older teens, While edited to be appropriate for thirteen-year-olds, it loses no power. "There are a number of scenes where a character comes face-to-face with Nazi homophobia and I pulled back," Cohen said. "It's up to the reader to fill in those gaps. If you want to know more about what happened, that's when my book—I hope—becomes a motivator, a trigger."

One of Train's characters questions why her Romani people aren't mentioned in BBC reports of Nazi genocide. This is central for Cohen. "How did these narratives become marginalized in the first place?," he asked. "I want young people to ask that question, because I think it makes them more critical thinkers. Teenagers of today are going to be responsible for the history of the future. They have to understand how history is written. Otherwise we as a society become manipulated by a few people who get to decide.

"What do we do if we don't include the Roma in the definition of the Holocaust? Where do we place the young girl, a Roma girl, who was in the same ghetto as Jews, who was on the same train—literally in the same carriage but weeks later—off to the same camp, who was murdered in the same gas chamber and her ashes buried in the same pit. Where do we place that girl?"

Cohen also wanted readers to think about the roles and responsibilities of persecuted minority groups. "What happens when different minorities who are being persecuted witness each other's persecution?," he asked. "When we are bystanders or even collaborators in persecution, we end up ignoring those actions because we say, 'but I'm a victim.' Whereas if we say we can be all of those things at the same time, then we can be more aware of our actions." He pointed out that those who oppress one minority are likely to oppress others, citing today's European anti-Semites as equally trans- and homophobic.

Cohen said he believes the goal of Holocaust education is trying to prevent genocide. "But it's happened again and again and again. Are we capable of preventing it? I don't know." He quoted Philip Guravich—"denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good"—but then said, "I think I'm an optimist. I think what we have to believe, as educators and as writers and activists, that by talking about it we are, in that moment, preventing atrocity."

Related coverage at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Professor-speaks-at-temples-Holocaust-remembrance-event/50382.html .


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