the BC story: Chapter III, Intermezzo

2016, 2 Mins 32 seconds, super-8mm film to HD, edited in camera


The laying of memorial stones in front of WWII refugee Bernard Cohn's childhood home, set to a reading from his memoir. 


My grandfather, a German Jew named Bernard Cohn, was born in Berlin in 1915. He went to college in Switzerland, and was thrown in jail by the rising Nazi party when he was visiting his family in 1935. He was awaiting transfer to a "re-education camp" when his father bribed the right person and he got on a train to Holland.

He made his way to England to finish school and his family followed soon after. As soon as war was declared against Hitler in 1939, he tried to sign up for the British army. Being German, despite his refugee status, meant that they would not accept him, and instead sent him and his father to several internment camps under suspicion of espionage.

The US denied his family a visa, but Brazil, also after some bribery, eventually granted them one. They booked passage for themselves on an ocean liner and loaded all of their worldly possessions onto a cargo vessel. Fearing the German u-boats that virtually controlled the Atlantic ocean, my grandfather decided to put off learning Portuguese until he actually made it to Brazil alive.

Sure enough, the cargo vessel with all of their things on it was torpedoed and sank to the bottom of the ocean. My grandfather and his family made it safely to Brazil, where they started a new life, eventually emigrating to the United States. 

Bernard was many things: professionally, he managed a dairy plant, imported brazil nuts, lizard skins and human hair, and even sold cookware door to door. When he came home from work, he had his own artistic pursuits, teaching himself how to make stained glass, metal fountains, and even 8mm films. 

We became close while I was going to college, spending Saturday mornings getting breakfast while he was still able to walk. I felt like he was the only member of my immediate family who could truly understand me. He died in 2012, physically crippled, but mentally as sharp as ever. 

There's a memorial project for WWII refugees - Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other minorities persecuted by the Nazis - started by an artist named Gunter Demnig. Called Stolpersteine, which translates to "stumbling block", he places stones with the names of the people who were killed or fled in front of their last chosen residence. When my mother found out about this program, she knew it was something we had to do to honor the memory of her father.

Bernard didn't return to Berlin until the 1970's, when the German government actually paid for some refugees to take a free trip back. Upon seeing his childhood home still standing, he joked that there ought to be a sign out front that read "Here lived Bernie Cohn."

40 years later, I watched as stones with those same words were hammered into the ground, right there at Flowtowstrasse #9, down the street from the river Spree. Documenting it on 8mm film, I can’t help but think that some things go full circle.