Authors: Christian Robisch, Maximilian Skotnica
Lilly Kohn was a self-confident and strong woman.
Daughter from a good family
She was born on March 12, 1892, the second of six children of Ida Kohn (née Dinkelspühler, 1860-1917) and Samuel Kohn (1851-1922). Two of the siblings died in infancy, a third child, Otto, died at the age of 11.
Their father was a highly respected man as a successful basket merchant with an international outlook, city councilor and long-time head of the Israelite community of Lichtenfels, who was socially strongly committed to "his" Lichtenfels. He was one of the five founders of the Private Realschule Lichtenfels (later: Meranier-Gymnasium), and after the death of his wife he established a foundation to support needy Lichtenfels residents (decidedly independent of their religious affiliation).
Lilly grew up with her two siblings Max and Minna in the prestigious residential and commercial building at Kronacher Strasse 20 and worked in the business.
In 1922 she married the Bamberg hop merchant Hans Gerst. The marriage ended in divorce in 1923, and she took her maiden name again. Lilly raised her son, Walter, from this marriage alone.
On her own two feet
In 1932, the basket business run by her brother Max collapsed in the world economic crisis. Max emigrated to England, and the entire family fortune, including the house, probably went bankrupt. How Lilly now financed the livelihood for herself and her son can only be partially deduced. She set up a "floor store" (i.e., pure distribution without a public store) to sell coffee and tea, which she operated out of the apartment. Son Walter related that he had to make deliveries to clientele by bicycle. She also optained qualifications to carry out infant and child care.
Life under the Nazi dictatorship
Lilly's son Walter gave vivid descriptions in his notes of the everyday humiliations, large and small, to which Jews in Lichtenfels were subjected.
Lilly Kohn was forced to move twice during the Nazi period: in 1934 the NSDAP district headquarters were established in her birthplace at Kronacher Str. 20, which in the meantime belonged to the savings bank, and in 1937 she had to move out of Bamberger Str. 44 because there was allegedly a need for a company important to the war effort. In the house of the Jewish community Judengasse 14, she directly witnessed the desecration and devastation of the synagogue. This gave the final impetus for emigration.
Escape from Germany
Her brother Max arranged jobs for both of them in Great Britain, without which immigration was impossible. However, Walter's matter was delayed, so that Lilly had to travel to London alone in March, leaving her 16-year-old child behind in Nazi Germany. A relative, Clara Rosenbaum, from Wannbach / Pretzfeld (71 years old) took care of the boy. It was not until June 1939 that he was able to follow his mother. According to the family, Lilly never completely got over the trauma of fear for her son.
In London, she worked as a housekeeper, geriatric nurse and childcare worker, and then also pursued this activity from March 1947 in New York, where she emigrated with her son at the suggestion of her sister Minna.
A new life in the USA
Lilly with her son Walter
© Family property
“Lilly lived on her own until the last months of her life. She was an excellent cook and baker. She could make almost anything with needles and thread. Her embroidery is as neat on the underside as it is on the front. She could make lace and she was always knitting. She was curious about the world and read books in both English and in German. She read The New York Times and German newspapers. She loved her family and her friends. She wrote letters and stayed in contact with many people, until her death.
Most of all, Lilly was kind. If you told her you liked something, she would make sure that she provided it, if she could. One of her nephews became a vegan. Lilly learned to bake without eggs and butter so she could still make him his favorite cakes and cookies when he visited. [This was years before the internet and the many food substitutions that are available now.]
Lilly died in 1985, after breaking her hip. She is buried in New Jersey, next to her sister.
(Sharon Kohn on her grandmother, email January 2021)