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A Civilian in Uniform
by Jean Kohn

  Chapter 1  
  Chapter 2  
  Chapter 3  
  Chapter 4  
  Chapter 5  
  Chapter 6  
  Chapter 7  

The following is a manuscript written by Jean Kohn detailing his experiences with PEG in France. It is about 24,000 words.

Kohn writes simply (November 1st 1995): "I thought it would be a good idea to tell the story of my life as a buckprivate soldier in the American army from 1943 to 1945." We are glad he did.

By Jean Kohn

Chapter One - The Backround

I was born in Paris, on September 11, 1924. I turned eighteen in 1942, and I was eligible for the draft in New York, where we lived at that time.

But what were we doing in New York in 1942?

We were Jews, living quietly in France where religious tolerance, stipulated in the Constitution at the time of the 1789 Revolution, had been further enforced by the famous Dreyfus "affair" when the ultraconservatives lost out just at the turn of the century. Emile Zola's famous pamphlet J'accuse set the tone. The Declaration des Droits de l'Homme was not wishful thinking.

Let us go back a little in the 1930s before the second World War. My father, Henri Kohn, had served along with all able-bodied young men for four years in World War I, from 1914 to 1918. He had been gased and decorated with the Croix de Guerre and the highest medal, the Médaille Militaire. From 1930 on, he was conscious of the rise of fascism and nazism in Germany and Italy, and especially worried about what would happen to the Jews, and thus to us, if Germany invaded France. It turned out that he was right all along as we now know what happened in Europe with the extermination camps.

At that time he was running a wood importing business dealing mostly with Eastern countries in Europe and Equatorial Africa. In 1937 he established contact with a balsa wood company in the United States and Ecuador to supply wood to a French model-airplane manufacturer who was not allowed to import wood since France, like the rest of the world, was emerging from the terrible crisis of the Great Depression that had started in 1929. There were import restrictions. Only registered importers could buy wood from overseas. That is how the family became involved with balsa. This new light wood was added to other tropical species the firm was already importing.

My father went to the United States and Ecuador to work on this new balsa-wood business. He spoke very little English and not a word of Spanish. To this day I wonder how he managed to communicate with the various businessmen with whom he signed supply contracts.

My father was very worried about the possibility of a war. France and England had given up resisting Hitler on various occasions: The occupation of the Ruhr, the Austrian Anschluss, the occupation of the Sudetenland in Tchecoslovakia, followed a few months later by the full occupation of that country. We almost went to war in 1938 when British and French prime ministers Chamberlain and Daladier signed the infamous Munich agreement. Peace was hanging by a thread in 1938 and early 1939. My father still didn't want to believe that France could be invaded and defeated by the German army. His four years in the infantry during World War I made him think that the French army was the best in the world. Many veterans thought the same way.

When war finally broke out in 1939 he imported some balsa-wood for the French army.

At the same time some of his good friends in England with whom he was working on this new balsa-wood business were also importing this wood to manufacture the famous mosquito bomber, which was just being designed.

France was invaded in early May of 1940 and by the middle of June the war was over as far as France was concerned.

Our family had fled from Paris, first to the small town of Granville on the channel, then to Southern France. We established ourselves for a while in Toulouse, a good-sized town on the Garonne river, not far from Spain.

My father, who had been to the U.S. had returned hurriedly to France in June 1940 to be with us in those dark days. He immediately decided to go back to the U.S.. The plan was that my older brother and I would follow shortly thereafter. My mother would come later on with my younger brother after settling what could be saved from the French firm.

My father left first. My older brother and I followed. We went to Spain at the end of 1940. The Ecuadorean Ambassador in Madrid was most helpful in obtaining for the two of us transit visas to go to New York on our way to Ecuador. We took a ship from Lisbon to the U.S., on the American export line, the S.S. Exeter, and we arrived in New York, in a peacetime atmosphere. It was strange for us who had just come out of a war zone to be back in a country which seemed to live, and effectively did live, peacefully.

We personally hadn't suffered from the war, especially not from hunger, but we were scared all the same by the threat of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Our whole secluded world had come apart.

As soon as we reached New York, instead of travelling to Ecuador, I took a room in a boarding house and attended an American high school. Being just sixteen, I could not think of doing anything else. I also wanted badly to learn English. I had a lot of trouble because my English was almost non-existent at the time. When I went to the very first class I can still remember the teacher, a very nice lady saying: "For tomorrow you will read 50 pages of this book: Silas Marner!!! 50 pages!!! My God, I could barely translate a quarter of a page!! But, after one month or two I came out all right. As a matter of fact I think I even got quite a good mark in English at the end of the term.

As we had no immigration visa for the U.S., having only passed through the U.S. to go to another country in the Americas, I went to Cuba where, again, the first thing I did was to find an American school where I could learn Spanish and follow the same courses I had taken a few months before in New York. My nineteen-year-old brother, Jacques, went to Ecuador to work in the family's balsa business.

In Cuba, with the help of a friend of my father, I arranged for my mother and younger brother to join me. They travelled on a Portuguese vessel full of immigrants.

We applied for our permanent American immigration visas and travelled to New York just after Pearl Harbor. In fact, the boat that carried us from Havana to New York was already painted grey to escape detection from German submarines. Later on these ships carried troops to combat zones.

We landed in New York, in very cold weather, just after Christmas 1941. There was snow in the street. For us this was quite a change, after having spent over six months in the beautiful Cuban climate. I went back to school. I graduated from high school with better than average marks in December 1942.

I had applied for college and was admitted as a freshman in January 1943. I wanted to be a forester since I intended to go in the wood business. Just like my father and grandfather. Someone had suggested to me: "Why don't you go to the New York State College of Forestry in Syracuse?" Why not? They offered very good courses. For New York State residents there was no tuition. We just paid a few dollars for the glassware in chemistry!!!

In March 1943, Uncle Sam called me up. I was eighteen years old.

The day I left home, my mother wanted to accompany me for a while. I did not want to be seen with her. I walked much faster than she did. To this day, I have been ashamed of my attitude.

Continue to Chapter Two




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