Roger Cohen’s maternal great-grandfather was born in Siauliai, Lithuania, in 1877, and left for South Africa in 1896. Arriving penniless, Isaac Michel had no formal education but could add and subtract, and eventually built a large retail empire. He died almost five decades later, with a lavish estate in Johannesburg that included a sprawling home, an arboretum and a turquoise Cadillac in the curving driveway, the chauffeur at his call.
As an old man, he would put a cube of sugar under his tongue and let it dissolve as he drank his tea, a reminder of his first home. His cycle of life is one of many that New York Times columnist Roger Cohen traces in his eloquent memoir, “The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family” (Knopf), that loops forward and back in his family’s history. The non-linear narrative rests on stories of movement, upheaval and reinvention, as family members traversed continents, from Lithuania to South Africa, and then to Britain, Israel and America.
Cohen cites Jean-Luc Goddard, “who remarked that a movie should have a beginning, a middle, and an end but not necessarily in that order. So it has been with my family. Like Chagall’s fiddlers, we have been looking in various directions at once.”
After writing three books related to international conflict and the longing for freedom — “Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis’ Final Gamble,” “Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo” and “In the Eye of the Storm: The Life of General H. Normal Schwarzkopf” — Cohen, 59, turned to his own family’s yearnings, and his search for personal truths.
“For my family, the past was gone,” he says in an interview while visiting New York from his home in Paris last week. “It took me quite a long time to decide I wanted to explore it.”
Many others have written stories of their family’s roots and journeys, but Cohen’s work stands out for his poetic and powerful prose, his insightful portrait of the South African Jewish community, and his linking of displacement, assimilation, loss and depression. Readers who have followed his writing in the Times will notice a strengthening of his bond to Israel and his connection to Jewish history.
The girl of the title is Cohen’s mother June, who was born on Human Street in the mining town of Krugerdorp, near Johannesburg, where her father was a doctor. Talented, intelligent and beautiful, she met Sydney, the man she would marry, also a doctor, on the tennis courts of her grandparents’ estate. Theirs was love at first sight. Sydney’s family had a similar story, with roots in the same Lithuanian town. The young couple, like others who wanted to escape apartheid South Africa, moved to England. From sun-drenched Johannesburg, June was uprooted to a gray London, from prosperity and affluence as well as family and a tight-knit community to the loneliness and austerity of 1950s England, where she and her husband had few connections. Roger was born in England, and the family traveled back to South Africa, and then returned to England, where he and his sister grew up. As he chronicles their moves, he also shares rich portraits of relatives they leave behind.
Cohen writes that he was raised an English boy, “as if England were my birthright and its preeminent faith, Christianity, my faith, if I had one at all.” Their home was proper, the umbrella stand always in place. They lived in England “as if we had always taken tea and Jaffa Cake at four o’clock in the afternoon and always bought the chicken for our Sunday roast in the supermarket. We came from South Africa and nowhere.” But their British roots remained shallow.
His father had disliked his own Jewish education, which was slight, and Roger was offered none. His parents didn’t deny their Jewishness — they never changed their name, as others did — nor did they embrace Judaism in any way or speak of what it meant to be Jews. And they didn’t pay much attention to the anti-Semitic barbs.
Growing up, Roger had no idea that his family had come from Lithuania. He also didn’t understand the pain his mother experienced, as she suffered from paralyzing depression. Soon after his sister was born, June was hospitalized and given electroshock therapy and insulin shock treatment. It was only when researching the book that he was able to figure out the timing of these treatments. She returned to the family and put great effort into projecting an appearance of normality. But a decade later, the pain and instability returned and she suffered from manic depression for the rest of her life. Twice, she tried to commit suicide and ultimately died of cancer in 1999.
In part, Cohen was inspired to write this book after going through the attic of his parents’ country home in Wales and finding a box with June’s suicide notes and medical notes his father had kept. In researching, he traveled to South Africa and Israel and back to the villages of his grandparents and great-grandparents in Lithuania — he learned that all of the Jews in Zagare, his grandmother’s hometown, were murdered by the Nazis on a single day in 1941, Yom Kippur. The last Jew of Zagare (who was away in 1941) died just before Cohen’s first trip there in 2011.
His father, who is 94 and distinguished for his research on malaria (the book is dedicated to him) encouraged him to write the book.
Cohen writes of his mother with tenderness, and understands that she always longed to return to South Africa. Her pain “was tied to our odyssey, a Jewish odyssey of the 20th century, and the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing and forgetting.” The accompanying anxiety and fear have been passed down over generations.
Looking over his family tree, he realizes that others have suffered from mental illness. In Israel, he learns of a young cousin named Rena with a similarly tragic story of great talent, intelligence and depression, who does commit suicide, and he speculates that she too suffered the effects of upheaval. Rena’s brother comes full circle, as he embraces a passionate religious life in Jerusalem, reaching back three generations to their shared Lithuanian ancestors.
These days, Cohen is interested in learning Hebrew and thinking seriously of having the bar mitzvah that he never had. His Jewish identity is “in evolution. It’s a strong sense of who I am, where I came from, something I want to explore. It’s what I feel myself to be.”
“I should say that messianic Judaism, which you find more and more in Israel, troubles me deeply, this notion that there’s a biblical right to real estate. That’s not my Jewishness,” he says.
“My Jewishness is rooted in the idea that we were strangers in a strange land for a long time. We should understand the stranger. For the state of Israel to be involved in the statelessness of another people, the reduction to strangers of another people, that’s not the outcome the Zionist founders of Israel had in mind.”
When asked about how he feels when Israel is called an apartheid state, he says that he recognizes echoes when he travels on the West Bank, where he sees roads reserved for Israelis only, or places where Palestinians are not allowed to go. But it’s not a phrase that he uses. “I don’t think that Israel practices apartheid. There are troubling echoes we should try to banish.”
He’s hopeful about possibilities for change, “just as South Africa ended apartheid without bloodshed.”
“I’m a liberal Zionist,” he says — “a much-mocked idea these days, but that’s what I am.”
For Cohen, there’s another move ahead, another completion of a cycle: He plans to return in June to New York City, where he lived when he served as foreign editor of the Times. “New York is home,” he says.