A group of five persons studies outdoors.
Photograph | Photograph Number: 93816
1941 - 1942
- Photo Credit
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Noemi Cassutto
A group of five persons studies outdoors.
Pictured in the center is Noemi Cassuto, aged 3 or 4. Her father, Leo Cohn, in a prayer shawl, bends down towards her.
- Noemi Cassuto was born in Strasbourg, France on October 27, 1938 to Leo Cohn (born October 15, 1913 in Lubeck, Germany) and Rachel Schloss (born May 14, 1915 in Hamburg, Germany). Leo's mother, Miriam, was the sister of Rabbi Zvi Carlebach from Hamburg, Germany; the last chief Rabbi of the city who perished in the Holocaust. Leo had three siblings. His father, Willy, was a wealthy banker and provided for the family a rich cultural and material life. Study of the Gemorah and Torah were blended with European culture. Classical music and art were part of the intellectual family life.
Leo's parents and brothers immigrated to Palestine via France in 1933 once his father realized that the situation was not favorable for the Jews. Leo's brothers Haim and Ely had gone to study in the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva and had come back to France filled with Zionism. Later in life, Haim became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Israel.
As a youngster, Leo belonged to the Orthodox youth movement "Ezra" and sang in their choir, later becoming a counselor as well. From the age of 16 he sang the part of a bass. He played the piano and the flute and his goal was to start a chorus. It was even due to his marvelous voice that he met his wife Rachel. When his family moved to Paris Leo joined the Jewish scout movement "Eclaireurs Israelites" where he felt at home and where he felt he was needed. He decided not to join his parents when they left for Palestine saying he was going to teach the Jewish youth of France about Zionism and to try and influence them to immigrate to Israel. He was so popular amongst the scouts that they quarreled over where he should work. Eventually he moved to Strasbourg where his future wife also lived and formed a scout club called "Kriyatenu" (Our Call). There, in 1938, his eldest daughter Noemi was born. Rachel joined him in working in the movement and accepted his long hours. Leo had found his calling as a spiritual leader as well as a Jewish leader amongst the groups in France.
In spite of his success as a leader in the youth movement he was still considered a refugee in France. In order to become a French citizen he would have to serve in the French army. He therefore willingly joined the Foreign Legion and served in North Africa for a year on the border of the Sahara. His musical talents served him there as well and he joined the chorus of the Legion. His wife Rachel meanwhile fled from Strasbourg with the large exodus of Jews from Alsace and came to the Eclaireur's children's home, Moissac. They welcomed her and helped her with the delivery of their son Ariel.
After a year in Algeria, suffering from dysentery, Leo with the help of 5,000 francs that the Jews of Algeria collected for him, managed to be demobilized and returned to his wife and two young children, meeting his son for the first time. There, with the help of other Scouts who fled South Leo arranged for shelters and homes for hundreds of Jewish children, many of whom were already orphans. He began to write a newspaper, began a chorus, and saw to it that the Jewish holidays were observed to their fullest. One of the children recalls that when Passover was approaching and there were no Matzot or Haggadoth, Leo sat down and wrote a Passover Haggadah from memory. He also taught the children how to prepare matzah. Leo and his wife tried to save food so there would be more on Fridays. He created a Sabbath atmosphere with songs and prayers to raise the morale of the children.
As the situation worsened and word of the "final solution" spread, reaching even the free zone of France, the Jewish youth movements began army training in small groups and called themselves "Armee Juive". They began to prepare escape routes and hide children. Leo traveled from place to place distributing false papers and ignoring any possible danger to his own life. He got on trains where the Gestapo was hunting down Jews. Everywhere he went he brought optimism, stories and tales. He and his wife and children were hidden in a farm of peasants on the border of a forest and even there he managed to bring Jewish youth from the area to have a Sabbath meal. His family spent five years living in forests and sleeping in different farms. They once stayed in a castle that belonged to Toulouse Lautrec. The children could not play out loud and were forbidden to speak German. They slept in their clothes ready for anything that might happen. He arranged for hundreds of youth to go into hiding on farms in the area in exchange for labor but it was known that anyone hiding a Jew was endangering his own life and family. He managed to gather information about the movements of the Nazis .He helped forge false documents for the underground members. He carried with him a false ID card, ration card, clothes card, demobilization card from the army, work permit, baptism certificate. He never showed any fear or paranoia. In April 1944 the siege tightened around Jews in the mountains and villages of Southern France. It was decided to smuggle women and children to Switzerland. Men over the age of 17 were given three choices: to participate in a group hiding Jews and forge false papers, to join a unit of the army under the leadership of the Jewish scouts or to immigrate to Palestine thru Spain.
According to Leo's daughter Noemi Cassuto, Leo was given orders to bring 500 children to Palestine via Spain. He took his family; his wife Rachel together with their 5 and ½ year old daughter, their 3 and ½ year old son Ariel and their 2 month old daughter Aviva, who was born in hiding on the Swiss border. Nazis were all around on truck and on foot and when they were not looking they dug a hole under the fence wrapping everyone in a blanket one at a time and rolled them under the fence. When Noemi got up she saw a soldier with a gun and realized he was Swiss. However, while escorting a group of children at the train station in Toulouse the Gestapo stopped Leo on May 17, 1944. He was sent to Drancy and then to Auschwitz. He was executed with a group of hostages in Strutthof. Survivors that accompanied him on his route relate that he continued to pray and sing to keep up morale.
- Photo Source
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial MuseumProvenance: Noemi Cassutto
Record last modified: 2010-07-01 00:00:00
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