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An intimate and profoundly moving Jewish family history—a story of displacement, prejudice, hope, despair, and love.
In this luminous memoir, award-winning New York Times columnist Roger Cohen turns a compassionate yet discerning eye on the legacy of his own forebears. As he follows them across continents and decades, mapping individual lives that diverge and intertwine, vital patterns of struggle and resilience, valued heritage and evolving loyalties (religious, ethnic, national), converge into a resonant portrait of cultural identity in the modern age.
Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through to the present day, Cohen tracks his family’s story of repeated upheaval, from Lithuania to South Africa, and then to England, the United States, and Israel. It is a tale of otherness marked by overt and latent anti-Semitism, but also otherness as a sense of inheritance. We see Cohen’s family members grow roots in each adopted homeland even as they struggle to overcome the loss of what is left behind and to adapt—to the racism his parents witness in apartheid-era South Africa, to the familiar ostracism an uncle from Johannesburg faces after fighting against Hitler across Europe, to the ambivalence an Israeli cousin experiences when tasked with policing the occupied West Bank.
At the heart of The Girl from Human Street is the powerful and touching relationship between Cohen and his mother, that “girl.” Tortured by the upheavals in her life yet stoic in her struggle, she embodies her son’s complex inheritance.
Graceful, honest, and sweeping, Cohen’s remarkable chronicle of the quest for belonging across generations contributes an important chapter to the ongoing narrative of Jewish life.
“Cohen . . . explores the tentacles of repressed memory in Jewish identity. . . . Thoughtful, wide-ranging, he muses on his own migrations spurred by ‘buried truths.’” —Publishers Weekly
“Honest and lucid. . . . With limpid prose, Cohen delivers a searching and profoundly moving memoir.” —Kirkus, starred review
“A gifted journalist, who has powerfully conveyed the grief of the bereft in various international trouble spots, here wrestles with his own grief for a mother who suffered through episodes of suicidal depression. This turns into a quest for core values in a family history spanning three continents, in which one uprooting led to the next. Many readers will find a mirror in Roger Cohen’s layered, ambitious, haunting book.” —Joseph Lelyveld, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White
“Roger Cohen has given us a profound and powerful book, gripping from start to finish. The story of his Jewish family’s suffering and success, from Lithuania before the Shoah to South Africa, London and Tel Aviv today, features fierce battles against external demons (Hitler, Stalin, pervasive anti-Semitism) and the internal demons of depression and displacement. Wise and reflective, The Girl from Human Street is memoir at its finest.” —Fritz Stern, author of Five Germanys I Have Known
“Roger Cohen captures a century’s upheavals in his moving, thoughtful, and well-written family saga.” —Henry A. Kissinger
“Roger Cohen’s great-grandfather once expressed the wish that every person might ‘truly know that all of creation—from the sand granule to the shining star—is connected like one chain.’ I wish he could read his great-grandson's book and experience how powerfully it initiates us into that extraordinary awareness. Beautifully written and deeply moving, The Girl from Human Street is at once a love letter to a lost mother and an unflinching account of devastation and displacement. How can a story of such sweeping scope also be so tender and so intimate? Roger Cohen turns personal and historical excavation into symphony.” —Mary Szybist, winner of the National Book Award
“I am moved by this book. I find fascinating the fusion of the private, even intimate family story with the history of European Jews in the twentieth century, the marriage of a subtle memoir with an essay on Jewish identity, tradition and assimilation, various diasporas and Israel, Israelis and Palestinians, humanism vs. fanaticism.” —Amos Oz
“Roger Cohen has written an absorbing, haunting voyage around the Jewish twentieth century. A book full of loss and love, it charts the intense, universal need to belong—a need so great, it can lead to despair and even a kind of madness. It is more than the story of one family. It is the story of a need that makes us human.” —Jonathan Freedland, columnist, The Guardian