When journalist Roger Cohen was just 3 years old, in 1958, his mother underwent electroshock treatment. Raised in South Africa, June Cohen, who was later diagnosed with manic depression, had moved with Roger’s father to England just a couple of years earlier. Immigrants in England, they’d chosen to uproot themselves from Johannesburg and the warm embrace they’d known there. Their own families were themselves immigrants to South Africa—they’d skirted the Holocaust, leaving Lithuania before the Nazi reign of terror but in a period when Europe was increasingly hostile to Jews.
Along with a genetic predisposition, Cohen believes all this dislocation may have contributed to his mother’s condition. What exactly was the connection between moving and mental illness? What part did the dark shadow of violence in Europe and South Africa play in June Cohen’s unraveling—and in that of relatives who similarly suffered? These are some of the questions Roger Cohen examines in The Girl From Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family.
He joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to talk about the role his family—and Jews in general—played in helping found Johannesburg, the self-effacement he saw among the Jews in England where he grew up, and the stash of letters in his father’s attic in Wales that propelled him finally to turn his reportorial gaze inward.
Plus, Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry checks in with Daniel Estrin from Jerusalem. Estrin, a frequent Vox Tablet contributor, is just back from Paris, where he reported on Jews and Muslims there in the days following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher. He shares a few impressions from his trip.