Cohen, Elie Aron

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COHEN, Elie Aron

Nationality: Dutch. Born: Groningen, 16 July 1909. Education: University of Groningen, M.D. 1935; University of Utrecht, D.Med. Science 1952; University of Leiden, specialist youth doctor. Family: Married 1) Aaltje van der Wonde in 1936 (died 1943), one son (deceased); 2) Marguerite Herrmann in 1947, one son and one daughter. Career: Physician in general practice, Aduard, 1935-41. Prisoner, Amersfoort, Westerbork, and Auschwitz, World War II. Physician, Arnhem, 1947-66; school physician, Arnhem, 1966-74; psychotherapist, Arnhem, 1974-93. Award: Officier in Orde van Oranje Nassau, 1974. Agent: Julian Bach Jr., 3 East 48th Street, New York, New York, U.S.A. Died: 22 October 1993.



De afgrond: Een egodocument. 1972; as The Abyss: A Confession, 1973.


Het Duitse concentratiekamp; Een Medische en Psychologische studie (dissertation; memoir and study). 1954; as HumanBehavior in the Concentration Camp: A Medical and Psychological Study, 1988.

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Elie Aron Cohen had been a general practitioner in Aduard, a village west of Groningen, in The Netherlands, from 1935 until 1 May 1941, when Jews were forbidden by the Germans to practice medicine. Arrested on 13 August 1942, he was taken first to the Amersfoort prison and concentration camp in Holland, then to the Westerbork transit camp, and finally to Auschwitz. He worked as a doctor in these camps until 18 January 1945, when he, along with the other prisoners, was forced to evacuate Auschwitz and proceed on the death march to Mauthausen. From there he was taken to two labor camps in Austria, Melk and then Ebensee, where he was freed by American forces on 6 May 1945. His book The Abyss: A Confession is an autobiographical account of his experiences.

The Abyss is completely different from Cohen's only other book, Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp: A Medical and Psychological Study, written as his dissertation for a doctoral degree. The Abyss is a personal narrative, written in a natural, conversational tone, in which the author describes his functions as a camp physician and readily confesses what he perceives to be his own failings. It grew out of interviews he gave to a Dutch weekly. Although there are countless first-person narratives about life in the concentration camps, in The Abyss, which Cohen calls "an admonitory monument," his goal is to warn the reader of the depths to which humans are capable of descending when they are demoralized and driven by extreme hunger. Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp, on the other hand, is a well-researched academic study of human nature, from which Cohen withholds any personal feelings. It was originally written at the University of Utrecht in 1952 and published in Dutch in 1954. In 1988 it was translated and published in The Netherlands, London, Stockholm, New York, and Tokyo.

There are many books in which the author attempts to provide insight into the psychology of Hitler, for example, Rudolph Binion's Hitler among the Germans, which examines the psychodynamics of his rise and fall, Ian Kershaw's Hitler: 1889-1936, or Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler. Other works, such as Detlev J.K. Peukert's Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition and Racism in Everyday Life and Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, analyze both the German people's blind devotion and their opposition to their führer. Many others deal with the psychology of the SS, for example, Heinz Höhne in The Order of the Death's Head or Willi Frischauer in Himmler: The Evil Genius of the Third Reich, to name but two. Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report of the Banality of Evil, provides a frightening insight into Adolf Eichmannn, who did not recognize his behavior as anything but blind obedience to the state, and the prison psychologist G.M. Gilbert, in his book Nuremberg Diary, writes about his interviews with those who were put on trial after the war. There are also many books and articles about the prisoners in the camps.

None of these works, however, uses Freudian psychoanalytic ideas to attempt to explain the forces that influenced the behavior of the prisoners or of the SS. Although he was neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, Cohen does employ Freudian thought, and in this way his two books are unique. They provide a different kind of insight into human behavior during the Holocaust.

After receiving his doctorate on 11 March 1952, Cohen resumed the general practice of medicine and worked as a school physician in Arnhem. He later contributed several articles to journals and newspapers about what he called "post-concentration camp syndrome."

—Diane Plotkin

See the essay on Human Behavior in the Concentration Camp: A Medical and Psychological Study.