Werner Cahn retraces his path through Europe during a 2014 conversation with Ryan Gompertz, his great-nephew.
Every family has a story.
My Great-Great-Uncle Werner Cahn was born in Aachen, Germany in 1920. In 1948, he moved to San Diego, where he has lived ever since. In April of 2014, he and I sat in a sunny corner of his home. I brought with me a notepad, a map of Europe, and a ten dollar tripod for my iPhone. After unfolding the map on the table in front of us, I pressed “record” and asked him a simple question.
“Uncle Werner, how did you get here?”
This research project was born of that question. For the next three hours, Werner described living in Holland when Hitler’s tanks rolled across the border. He remembered working his way south under an assumed identity, meeting with resistance contacts along the way. He recalled crossing the Pyrenees on foot, he and his fellow refugees guided by smugglers to evade Nazi patrols and safely enter Spain. He reminisced about his time on a kibbutz in Israel.
Three hours and a full hard drive later, Werner reflected on his experience: “It’s insane. I was lucky. I was just lucky.”
Werner’s experience is a powerful story of perseverance, courage, and miraculous luck. Though the exact details of his account are unique to him, the overarching themes exist across many stories in many families. Other Jewish refugees remember similar extraordinary journeys in their paths from certain danger to uncertain futures. Claude Vigée was a French doctor who produced fake autopsy reports to help detained refugees elude Vichy authorities. Lisa Fittko was a German anti-fascist who escaped across the Pyrenees only to turn back to help others do the same. Sam Levy was a relief worker who used his Portuguese citizenship and Red Cross connections to connect refugees with international organizations who could deliver them to safe destinations.
These stories are history in the flesh, accounts of the past to which we owe our present, and a chance to reconnect our identity to our heritage.
Every family has a story. Are they history? Many students are taught that historians must be removed from and impartial to their work. Thankfully, I was not. Professors in the Department of History and Stroum Center encouraged me to channel my enthusiasm and connection to the subject into strong research. In particular, Professors Glennys Young and Devin Naar were strong influences without whom my work would not have been possible. What began as personal turned historical thanks in large part to their guidance and input. I am most grateful for their conviction in highlighting the value of first-hand accounts, which elsewhere might have been disregarded as “biased” and “limited” in their historical value.