Hyde Park Mourns Its “Mayor,” Who Escaped Then Fought the Nazis

“He cared passionately about the community. He was one of the people that created the environment in the neighborhood.”

By Christine Schmidt

Herman Cohn, the informal “Mayor of Hyde Park” who escaped Nazis in Germany, returned as a U.S. soldier to fight them, and eventually settled Hyde Park as the owner of a tailor shop for more than five decades, passed away in Hyde Park on March 21. He was 94.

“He cared passionately about the community,” Hyde Park Herald publisher Bruce Sagan said in an obituary. “He was one of the people that created the environment in the neighborhood.”

After growing up in a deeply patriotic, non-kosher Jewish home in Germany, Cohn experienced firsthand the effects of Hitler’s rhetoric and the rise of Nazism among his own neighbors and community.

A particularly formative experience was his witnessing of Kristallnacht, or “the Night of Broken Glass,” as a 17-year-old. Kristallnacht was a state-sponsored pogrom against German and Austrian Jews where Nazis destroyed and burned thousands of Jewish-owned stores and synagogues, ending with the departure of 30,000 Jews to concentration camps. 75 years to the day of this horrific event, Cohn shared his story at a public event at Ida Noyes Hall.

While Nazis set fire to prayer books and the city of Cologne’s synagogue, Cohn noticed, “the fire department protected [adjacent] buildings,” while letting the synagogue burn. When he tried to obtain an exit visa, he was detained and beaten at the Gestapo headquarters. He was told he would be sent to the Dachau concentration camp but at the last minute, for unknown reasons, a Gestapo official informed him “We can’t keep you. We’ll give you two minutes to get out of the building.”

As a 17-year-old, Cohn escaped from Germany on the last Kindertransport train ride out of the country to the Netherlands before heading to the U.S. the next year with his family. They settled in Chicago, where they joined with other family members in Hyde Park.

“My father loved the diversity of Hyde Park and appreciated that it was one of the few neighborhoods in Chicago that had stable integration,” his daughter Joyce Feuer told the Hyde Park Herald.

Out of the ashes of Kristallnacht, Cohn built a new life for himself and his family, including his soon-to-be-wife Elsa Kahn. But he did not forget about his origins of Germany, and he enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight the Nazis in World War II, marrying Kahn the week before his deployment. When he went to the local recruitment office to sign up, he said simply, “Take me now.”

In June 1944, Cohn and his unit disembarked on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France and eventually reached his native Germany. He helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp—the very concentration camp where he would have been sent had the Gestapo not released him six years earlier. His grandmother had died in a similar camp at the age of 84. At the Ida Noyes event in 2013, he recounted what it was like to see the mass grave at Dachau: “I was very numb…I walked around like a zombie in the camp.”

Last year, Cohn returned to Germany to be honored at a ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau. The History Channel in Germany also profiled him for a documentary called “The Liberators.”

After the war, Cohn came back to Hyde Park and purchased a dry cleaning business before co-opening Cohn & Stern Men’s Store, which existed in Hyde Park for 54 years, according to the Herald. The store served politicians, White Sox baseball players, Nobel Prize winners, entertainers, and more.

The store, as well as his long-term involvement in community organizations such as the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, Congregation Habonium, South East Chicago Commission, and the Hyde Park YMCA, helped establish Cohn as a reliable force in the Hyde Park community. Cohn was also a regular at Valois Restaurant, where he often enjoyed his favorite dish of chicken pot pie alongside businesspeople and politicians such as the future President Barack Obama.

Although Cohn & Stern Men’s Store in the Hyde Park Shopping Center at 55th and Lake Park closed in 2006, Cohn welcomed the changes that were happening to the commercial landscape in Hyde Park. “It’s inevitable and necessary that these major retailers are moving into the neighborhood and I welcome it,” he told the Herald last year. “It will be good for the people of Hyde Park.”

His daughter, Feuer, also told the Herald last year: “My father’s vision was to make Hyde Park a better business community…. He was committed to dressing every man in the neighborhood.”

“Hyde Park is one of the finest neighborhoods in the city of Chicago,” Cohn once told the Herald. “I am very fortunate to be able to live in this vital community.”

According to the Herald, Cohn is survived by his children: Howard (Phyllis) Cohn, Dr. David (Valerie) Cohn, Joyce (David) Feuer; his grandchildren Lauren (Jeffrey) Kovach, Joshua Cohn, Dana (David) Kite, Amy Feuer (Isiah Parker), Zachary (Ashley) Cohn, Aaron Feuer; his great-grandchildren Jori Parker, Sienna Kite, and Maxwell Cohn; and Margot Eisenhammer, as well as many nieces, nephews, and cousins around the world. His wife of 65 years, Elsa Kahn, passed away in 2009 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Services for Cohn were held this Monday at Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Hyde Park and Jewish Oakridge Cemetery.