“Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.” — Gen. George S. Patton
The year was 1945. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had just announced Germany’s surrender in the war. Judge Aaron Cohn, then a major in the U.S. Army, still had work to do. Traveling with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Cavalry that May, Cohn and his men happened upon a satellite concentration camp in Austria called Ebensee. The camp had been unknown to them.
Entering the gates, the 29-year-old officer encountered an overwhelming stench, and about 500 naked cadavers. About 100 survivors stood around him. Some were dressed shabbily, others unclothed. He offered them assurance he wasn’t an SS officer and then declared: “Ich bin ein amerikanischer Jude!” (“I am a Jewish American.”)
With this, Cohn became the liberator of about 18,000 people.
Certainly a defining moment in his life, but by no means the only one, Cohn’s memoirs are now in print. Lynn Willoughby, Ph.D., a Columbus historian and retired professor, has captured Cohn’s memorable life in “Judge Cohn: Memoirs of a First Generation American.” Cohn is 92, has lived in the same house since 1957, and continues to serve on the bench of Muscogee County Juvenile Court. He and his family are members of Temple Israel, and all proceeds from the book will go to the congregation.Competitive fire
Several themes come out strongly in conversations with Cohn, and from his biography: the importance of his family and dedication to the community, especially to children; loyalty; seeking truth and justice; his love of the military; and the University of Georgia Bulldogs, his alma mater.
“There are certain things that happen that make an impression on you,” Cohn says, by way of beginning an interview in his comfortable midtown home filled with memorabilia. An early impression: the downtown YMCA. “Growing up Jewish in a Christian world fueled Aaron’s competitive nature,” his biography says. “Being Jewish also helped him learn to judge people by their merit instead of their religion.” At the “Y,” young Aaron played tennis. From the sport he learned “tenacity, honesty and humility,” according to the biography.
Tennis was a thread that continued through his adult life, and he gave it up just in the last decade. In part because of quintuple bypass surgery in the early ’80s, Cohn’s wife Janet Ann eventually got him to hang up his racket.
“She got nervous every time I left the house to play; she’s very protective of me,” said Cohn, who won the state doubles senior title in 1976. His partner was Terry Scott, a retired local pro.
Tennis would have earned Cohn a scholarship his last year at UGA, if not for university football scholarships winning out at the last minute. But he still made his mark: At the peak of his undergraduate career, Cohn was ranked sixth in the Southeastern Conference.
Cohn spent five years at UGA, including law school. He graduated in 1938.
Of Cohn’s three children, his son Leslie is the only to follow in his footsteps professionally. Leslie Cohn’s practice is in the old family home on Second Avenue. Aaron Cohn’s father, Sam, owned a livestock company here. His mother was the former Etta Hirsch. His family were Russian immigrants.
When Aaron Cohn returned to Columbus, he studied feverishly for the bar and became one of only two candidates that year to pass. His first year out of school, Cohn worked for attorney George Palmer, who would later become a Superior Court judge.
In Cohn’s personal life, he first met Janet Ann Lilienthal in the late 1930s. Janet Ann is a native of Selma, Ala. In Columbus, she and Aaron were part of the same Jewish youth group, for which Aaron was the president and Janet Ann was the treasurer. (But, she was bad at math — so they became better acquainted as Aaron helped her with the books.) The two married in 1941. In addition to son Leslie, they have two daughters: Jane Cohn Kulbersh of Columbia, S.C., and Gail Cohn of Atlanta. Aaron and Janet Ann have six grandsons and one granddaughter; and nine greatgrandchildren.
“Children need love first and they also need disipline,” Cohn said. “You can’t always run a popularity contest with your children.”
One example: Cohn did not become popular with his own son one night when Leslie was a teenager. Seated upstairs, Aaron Cohn smelled cigarette smoke that had wafted, through a window, from a downstairs bathroom. He called for his son. Though given three chances to confess, Leslie did not.
“Aaron exploded in rage,” the book states. “He had not a mean bone in his body, but there was one thing he would not tolerate — deception. To him, the truth could never be worse than a lie.”
Leslie Cohn remembers it well.
“Each time I lied, it infuriated him more,” Leslie Cohn said.‘Nothing is routine’
Aaron Cohn has had ample occasion to confront deception on the Juvenile Court bench, where he’s served since 1964. At his swearing in on Dec. 30, Cohn became the city’s first Jewish judge. To his knowledge, he’s been the only one since.
“This is not a criminal court in the sense of punishment, but it is designed toward rehabilitation ... (of) children from all economic levels and racial backgrounds,” Cohn once told this newspaper. The youth detention center on Schatulga Road was named for him in 2005.
His most satisfying cases, he said, are those in which former troublemakers come back to thank him.
“I have loved every day of it,” he said recently. “Every day I’m like a horse running to the barn. Nothing is routine.” He believes his mind is even sharper now than when he was first appointed; and he trusts his staff to tell him when he needs to step down.
“I say to them, ‘If you think I’ve lost it, tell me,’ ” Cohn said.
Just as he thinks too many parents seek popularity rather than authority with their children, the judge believes there’s a connection between broken homes and crime. “Maybe I’m oldfashioned,” he said, “but I think fathers need to be in the same home with mothers and their children.”
In his spare time, Judge Cohn teaches juvenile justice classes, pro bono, to new police officers and sheriff’s deputies at Columbus State University. “The better I train them, the better they will understand the law, and the better my court will become, too,” Cohn said.
Another way he’s given to the community: through voter registration drives at the height of the civil rights movement. He was appointed the chief registrar in 1960, serving for five years. Cohn remembers setting up big tents along Broadway.
“We had blacks registering whites and whites registering blacks,” said Cohn. “I said, ‘There can be no such thing as a second-class citizen in the United States of America.’ It was wrong” to bar blacks from voting. “I’ve always believed we have to learn to love each other and get along.”
But he was met with fierce resistance. “A man called me up and said, ‘I’m gonna get your job.’ ” Cohn laughed at the prospect; he made $20 a week as the registrar.
Paraphrasing an Atticus Finch line from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Cohn said: “To get to know a person, you have to walk around in his shoes.”
That ethic also led to his ecumenical efforts here in the 1950s. Called the Columbus Roundtable of the National Council of Christians and Jews, Cohn joined Dr. Andy Roddenbery, a Columbus physician, and Louis Kunze, a Catholic layman, in organizing programs at the two synagogues, churches and social clubs.
The group’s point was to foster strong respect among the faiths.Still making a difference
Leslie Cohn said he idolizes and respects his father, because “what he’s accomplished in his life is remarkable; and he did it on his own. Nobody ever gave him a thing.” The younger Cohn said his father’s drive continues because he has something left to give.
“I still think he feels he can make a difference, and influence more children and families,” Leslie Cohn said.
As for his Cohn’s memoirs, his family had been after Cohn for some time to get his life recorded.
“His drive to give back is innate,” said Willoughby, who interviewed the judge for the book most often in his home and most often around a lunch of barbecue sandwiches. “It’s what he does, for the community and for the kids. I don’t think my generation was raised that way.” It took Willoughby about a year to complete the book.
The judge expressed pride in her work, and makes over Willoughby like a daughter. “She’s become part of my family,” he said. A portrait of the judge by Don Coker of the Ledger-Enquirer supplies the cover art. Photographs are interspersed throughout.
Asked about his legacy, Cohn said he’d like it to include these things: “That I was an American, and proud of it; a patriotic American; and an American who believed that all the races and religions should learn to get along and live up to the principles on which this country was founded.”