Roger Cohen has long borne witness to disorder and carnage. During his renowned career as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and International Herald Tribune, his work has served as a proverbial “first draft of history” and shaped our understanding of events from the Bosnian War to the US invasion of Afghanistan. In his new memoir, The Girl from Human Street, Cohen turns his journalistic eye inward as he studies the history of his own family—including unsparing looks at his mother’s struggle with mental illness, the challenges of surviving as an immigrant and the personal evolution of his own Jewish identity. In doing so, he not only creates a novelistic and sweeping account of his own family’s story, but he explores the larger history of the Jewish world from the outset of the 20th century to today.
“I’ve always been interested in the way individual psyches reflect broader history. You can tell a broad story through one human being,” Cohen said by phone during a recent interview.
To this end, Cohen introduces the reader to a slate of engaging personalities, from his Uncle Bert, a captain in the South African forces in Italy at the end of World War II, to his cousin Rena, who lives in modern-day Israel and struggles with the family’s accursed mental illness. Writing about Rena, who renames herself Renata (“reborn”) as part of an attempt to heal herself, Cohen writes, “Confusion would pursue her, the conundrum of who she was.”
It is this pervasive confusion—the conundrum of identity and the struggle of assimilation—that runs throughout the work, from Cohen’s recounting of the slaughter of an entire village’s children in wartime Lithuania to the commercial successes of his family’s enterprises in apartheid-era South Africa and, later, the self-consciousness of being a Jewish student in a school full of English children.
Cohen’s narrative of confusion is both compelling and unflinching. He weaves in deeply personal details of his mother’s electro-convulsive therapy at Holloway Sanatorium, for example, as well as letters she wrote later in life during her final battle with cancer. When she (the titular “girl” who grew up on Human Street in Johannesburg) dies, there is so much emotional exhaustion that nobody pays attention to the fate of her ashes. “They ended up in some Dumpster, I suppose,” he writes.
“I guess I’ve suffered so much from being hidden, from lacking the courage to tell the truth, that it’s affected my life very deeply,” Cohen says of his unsparing account. “This was the truth as it was lived insofar as I could render it within my family.”
Cohen’s ability to study his family with a journalist’s objectivity, combined with a cinematic sense of place and setting, enhance the work beyond the confines of memoir. His journalistic training presents itself in obviously highly researched passages that rely on hospital records, accounts of wartime massacres, and personal journals and letters. But in the work’s multigenerational structure and in the cinematic passages—the surf and the flora of South Africa, for example, the attire of his family’s apartheid-era servants—Cohen brings his family history the sensibility and appeal of a novel.
“I’ve thought about writing novels for a long time. I’ve begun more than one without completing them,” he says. “For me, journalism and book writing are two very different sides of my mind and my sensibility.”
Ultimately, no matter how compelling Cohen’s family stories are on their own, their greater impact comes as they reveal larger truths about the Jewish condition during the unraveling of the last century. Cohen traces an evolution, for example, from a secularization of his family’s identity immediately after the war, to a very significant reconnection to Jewish belief and ritual in more recent times. Cohen himself seems to have written the book as part of a quest to understand his own sense of Judaism and what it means in the world today.
“I’m not a religious man, but I do feel that my Jewish identity is the chain that runs back and that for me to complete myself involves exploring that further,” he explains. For Cohen, that personal question is also a political one. “I wanted to understand why I became a Zionist. I believe that Israel is needed,” he says.
Cohen closes the book with a chapter that examines the current state of mid-east affairs (a “necrocacy,” he calls it, repeating Amos Elon) and uses his great grandfather’s journals to arrive at a sense of the divine and of a Jewish place in the world that is based on social justice, reconciliation and reason.
“I don’t want to live in the 21st century with the knowledge that Jews have imposed an exile and statelessness on other people,” he says. “I do think that for the homeland to exercise dominion over another disenfranchised people, it’s a corrosive exercise. It’s not the right cause.”
The book nears its end with an imagined conversation between Cohen and his late mother. He comes to a sense of acceptance of the pain and struggle that marked their lives. The reader senses that he hopes for the same resolution for the victims of the massacres, for the immigrants of the world, for those who suffer in the holy land today.
“Societies need to reach some common understanding of the past to move forward,” he says.
David Garza lives in New York City.