My father was Léo Cohn, a leader of the Jewish Scouts in France, a public servant who devoted his life to helping his persecuted Jewish brothers. He helped Jewish refugees running for their lives to southern France, organized education and culture for them, organized choirs in southern France, and they sang, and helped them cross into safer lands. My father carried out other underground duties he was charged with, never refusing a mission, which would save fellow Jewish lives.
He had two chances to escape his fate. The first, he could have moved to the Land of Israel with his parents but he chose to fulfill his duty in France among the Jewish communities. The second, in 1944, when the French Jewish Scouts underground were smuggling families to Switzerland, including our family, my mother Rachel, my brother Ariel and my sister Aviva, my father placed his life in others' hands and parted from us in order to stay and rescue Jewish youths at risk to his own life.
I'll take the liberty of quoting from my mother's memoirs: "A wintry Friday night, outside it was storming. I'd just lit the candles and he came in with the Sabbath, or the Sabbath came in with him. He sat with us at the Sabbath table. We sang and I was happy. After the meal, Léo told me he'd been asked to escort a group of youths over the French border and I was to decide whether he should accept the mission.
"Could I say no? Don't go, stay with us? I couldn't. I told him: Go! And my heart was broken..."
Some time later, as persecution of the Jews escalated in the south of France, our family was smuggled to Switzerland and my father, who remained in France to help Jewish youth and managed to save dozens of lives, was caught in the act, imprisoned and sent to the Drancy transit camp.
In Drancy, too, he organized for the children who were forcibly separated from their parents sing-alongs and storytelling to help pass the time in the camp. He was sent from Drancy to Auschwitz, then to the Stutthof camp in northern Poland, from which he never returned.
I stand before you today, a Holocaust survivor, daughter of Léo Cohn, who worked for Jewish solidarity, saved Jewish lives in the Holocaust and paid for it with his life.
Before he parted from my mother, she told me, he told her: "If I don't come back, take the children to the Land of Israel, remarry and build another Jewish home."
The legacy of my father, who dreamed about immigrating to the Land of Israel, was to work for Jewish solidarity and unity, to educate future generations to build the Land together. To overcome our internal conflicts and continue to grow together as the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.
I was privileged to raise a family, with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who have laid down roots on our land, for generations to come.
My father's dream came true!
Naomi Cassuto (née Cohn) was born in 1938 in Strasbourg, France, to Yehuda-Leo Cohn and Rachel Cohn (née Schloss), Jewish refugees who had fled Germany after the Nazi Party came to power. In France, Leo joined the Tzofim (Jewish Scouts) Youth Movement and became involved in, among other things, teaching about Judaism, the Hebrew language, the Bible, prayer and music.
In December 1939, Leo enlisted in the Foreign Legion and was sent to North Africa. While he was away, Rachel and Naomi moved to Muscat, a town located in the south of France. Upon Leo's return in 1940, he began to lead the Jewish Scouts Movement in the area. He organized the Scouts Choir, performing across southern France, including in front of non-Jewish audiences. That year, Naomi's brother, Ariel, was born.
Leo served as deputy to the director of the Jewish Scouts Movement in France, Robert Gamzon (Castor). When Gamzon charged Leo with managing a farm in the town of Luterk, the entire Cohen family moved to live there. Leo would travel between the various areas where Jewish children and refugees were hiding in the south of France. He would try to lift their spirits and provide them with whatever they needed. Leo also published an underground newspaper that was distributed in those areas where Jews were in hiding, as well as a youth newspaper, which fostered a zest for life as well as a love for Judaism and the Land of Israel, and the desire to settle and establish a Jewish homeland there.
In May 1943, the occupying Nazi authorities imposed laws banning activities of the Jewish Scouts; these prohibitions forced the movement and their activities underground. The Luterk farm was dismantled, and the family once again moved to another town in the south of France, named Custer. There, Naomi's sister, Aviva, was born in 1944.
Leo's activities brought Naomi and her family to the Swiss border. Members of the underground tried to persuade Leo to cross the border together with his family, but Leo was chosen by the Jewish Scouts leadership to lead a group of youths from France to Spain. He decided to stay with the youth and transport them to Spain and from there to immigrate to Israel. Naomi recalls:
"Before we separated, my father blessed me with God's blessings and promised that we would see each other again in the Land of Israel."
On 2 May 1944, Naomi and her family crossed the border from France to Switzerland. Leo remained in France and continued his activities organizing the rescue of Jewish youth by smuggling them to Spain. Two weeks after parting with the rest of his family, Leo was captured by the Gestapo. He was detained in the Drancy transit camp and after a few months was deported on Transport 77 to the East, where he was murdered in one of the concentration camps.
Naomi and her family immigrated to Israel in 1945. Her mother remarried.
Naomi received a doctorate in Art History. She worked for the Ministry of Education in the field of teaching practical and theoretical art. She also coordinated art curricula, specializing in paper cutting. Naomi curated various exhibitions in Israel, and served as a guide at numerous art sites around the world.
Naomi and her husband David have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.