Jean and Jack Cohen come from different ends of the earth. Jean grew up in the Bronx and lived in New Jersey; Jack lived in Holland during World War II. Jean attended Long Island University; Jack survived the Holocaust and eventually traveled to America. Somehow, the Cohen’s found each other in California, and over 47 years, the couple has worked together and raised a healthy and college-educated family. Today, the Cohen’s own the Old Town Boutique in Temecula. Though their life stories are divergent and widespread, the two couldn’t be more compatible.
“We’ve worked together since the day we met,” Jean, 79, said. “He’s just a good person.”
Jack, 86, was born in Ostend, Belgium, to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. During his childhood, Jack lived in Amsterdam with his family.
When Hitler’s Nazis invaded Holland in May of 1940, the Cohen’s were not greatly affected. They continued to run their family factory and send Jack and his older brother, a concert pianist, to school. However, in August of 1941, the Nazis decreed that Jewish children were not permitted in so-called “Aryan schools.” Jack then stayed home with his parents and worked in their factory, where they made decorative accessories and interior design merchandise.
“That is why I now work in merchandising,” said Jack. “I became very familiar with it.”
When Jack was 14, his grandparents were forced to move from Zandvoort, a beach town, to Amsterdam with the Cohen’s. To help them move their belongings, Jack drove a large tricycle mounted with a small sail and a flat box 25 miles to Zandvoort. In riding his tricycle to Zandvoort, Jack was inspired to work for a local bookstore which rented out books for 10 cents a week.
“My job was to ride the tricycle around with the large box acting as shelves to hold westerners, or romances, or adventure stories.”
On one of his bookstore rounds Jack said he passed an “old-age home for Jewish people” where Germans were loading elderly people into army trucks. Some people had wheelchairs or crutches.
“I started to realize how great someone’s hate must be to take all of those old Jews and move them. They thought they would be settling in Theresienstadt. Instead, they were killed in concentration camps,” said Jack.
Following this incident, Jack received word that his grandparents were to be resettled.
“You’d probably ask why they did not hide,” he said. “At that time people still believed the stories of starting a new life. One night, the Germans had come with a large truck filled with Jewish people to pick them up.”
Unbeknownst to his grandparents, the truck would transport them to a school, where they would later be transported to the Sobibor extermination camp.
“As I looked inside [the school]…they were sitting so peacefully, holding hands. This image of them has been engraved into my memory forever.”
When Jack was 16, he was called to register for forced labor in Germany.
“It became clear I would have to go into hiding…so I got myself some new ID papers…and started to look for a place to go underground.”
Over the next two years, Jack stayed undercover and on the run, living in nightclubs, farms, and churches all across central Europe. Once he was arrested on the pretense that he had false papers, but he was soon released. Another time he caught psoriasis, but likewise, he recovered. His father was not so lucky. Jack’s father was sent to the Westerbork transit camp, where Anne Frank also stayed before she was sent to Auschwitz. He survived, but returned home after the war bedraggled.
After four years of ostracism and constant movement, the Cohen’s were reunited, beaten but alive. Today, Jack reflects upon the strength of family and the value of equality. Jean Cohen similarly values resilient family bonds.
“His family was so strong,” said Jean. “War-torn but strong. We wanted our family to be the same way.”
Seventy-three years after the Germans invaded Holland, Jack is a great grandfather, grandfather, and father to many.
“We’ve traveled all over the world together,” said Jean. “We’ve met so many people, at the shop, in different countries. We have a good family and a good life.”