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Young Adult Thriller Inspired By Hidden Holocaust History

Danny M. Cohen’s new novel gives voice to the marginalized victims of Nazism

  • Cohen’s debut novel “Train” featured on Holocaust Remembrance Day
  • Interview, discussion, 5 p.m. April 16 in G21 Annenberg Hall, Evanston 
  • Highlights marginalized victims of Nazism -- the Roma, disabled, homosexuals

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Designed to fill an important gap in Holocaust literature, the young adult novel “Train” by writer Danny M. Cohen tells the compelling story of six teenagers who witness Nazi round-ups in 1943 Berlin and try to escape. 

The thriller, designed for classroom use, shines a light on the unheard victims of Nazism – the Roma, the disabled, intermarried Jews, homosexuals and political enemies of the regime, said Cohen, an assistant professor in Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, who specializes in the design of Holocaust and human rights education. 

“Why do we exclude, marginalize and silence those parts of history that seem to be important?” Cohen asked. “Their stories and experiences help us figure out these broader questions of prejudice and how different forms of oppression are connected.” 

The Roma were not officially recognized by Germany as victims until 1979, Cohen said. Homosexual victims weren’t officially acknowledged until 2002. “Official recognition has been a struggle for decades,” he said. “That’s really what triggered my work on hidden histories.” 

Cohen will be reading from “Train” at a campus-wide event for Holocaust Remembrance Day at 5 p.m. on April 16 in G21 Annenberg Hall on the Evanston campus. The event also features a discussion between Cohen and Northwestern professor Phyllis Lassner of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. A reception will follow. 

Cohen, a learning  scientist and educator, originally started writing short pieces of historical fiction to help teachers; one story featured a disabled victim while another told of a persecuted homosexual. When he realized the stories naturally connected, he began writing “Train,” which Lassner called “a stunning achievement” and a “historically grounded depiction of Hitler’s young victims.” 

For educators, “Train” comes with a companion curriculum called “Overlapping Triangles,” which includes lesson plans and activities that encourage critical thinking skills. The name “Overlapping Triangles” comes from the Nazi’s recognition that some people fell into multiple categories. In some Nazi camps, a gay, 17-year-old Jewish boy, for example, would be forced to wear a pink triangle over a yellow one to form a pink and yellow star.

“We can’t separate victim groups; the narratives are connected,” said Cohen. “In certain cases, they shared the same trains, Nazi camps and gas chambers; then were burned in the same ovens and buried in the same pits.” 

“Train” was published in partnership with Unsilence Project. Founded by Cohen, Unsilence Project is a series of educational experiences for teenagers and the public that bring to light marginalized narratives of the Holocaust, genocide, and human rights. 

In addition to working with educators, Cohen has also partnered with several community organizations, including the Illinois Holocaust Museum, with whom he recently ran a training class for 50 teachers. 

Cohen, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, says there’s growing awareness of genocide, prejudice and hate. At the same time, atrocities in Syria and Darfur, Sudan clearly show there’s a long way to go. 

“It’s not enough to say ‘never again, never forget,’” said Cohen, who was recently reappointed by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner to the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission.  “We actually have to change actions and engage. Whenever we talk about these issues, we are taking action. We need to go into difficult, uncomfortable territory and talk about hidden histories that have become taboo.”

Cohen’s book reading and discussion is sponsored by the School of Education and Social Policy, Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University, The Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies and the Holocaust Educational Foundation of Northwestern University. 

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