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Coronavirus claims life of Holocaust hero Rabbi Cohn, 91

Rabbi Romi Cohn. (U.S. House of Representatives/Released)

Rabbi Avraham Hakohen (Romi) Cohn of Eltingville, a teen hero of the Holocaust, succumbed after being hospitalized with symptoms of the coronavirus (COVID-19), according to various sources.

Rabbi Cohn, 91, who died on Tuesday, was renowned for being the youngest member of the Partisan army of resistance against the Nazis.

His death was reported in Jewish publications, including The Yeshiva World.

In January to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Rep. Max Rose (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn) hosted Rabbi Cohn, who as a survivor, led the opening prayer before the House of Representatives.

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“As a young boy of 13 years, I was condemned to be dead, to be murdered, and with my entire family, including my 3-year-old little sister,” Rabbi Cohn said in prayer. “By one evil man, may his name be erased forever. But my life was spared, I was saved by my father.”

“Our community has suffered a tragic loss from COVID-19 with the passing of Rabbi Romi Cohn,” Rose said on Twitter. “Was truly an honor to host him, his family and loved ones in DC just a few months ago.”

Rabbi Cohn’s mother, two sisters, and two brothers perished in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, but the survivor overcame numerous adversities to become a prominent Island businessman and a religious leader known throughout the world for his fight against anti-Semitism.

A former director of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce and a vice-president of the Home Builders Association, Rabbi Cohn was a builder and developer who, as the head of Mayberry Homes, constructed some 3,500 residences on the Island. At the time of his death, Rabbi Cohn and his surviving wife, Malvine, resided in one of his developments in Eltingville and also maintained an apartment in Brooklyn, according to his biography and family friends.

A deeply-religious man, Rabbi Cohn was a mohel who performed ritual circumcisions. About 35 years ago, he founded a scholarship foundation that to this day supports outstanding Torah scholars and their families, according to his biography.

“Despite having personally witnessed the greatest evil that mankind is capable of, Romi remains hopeful, optimistic, and true to his Jewish heritage,” his biography said. “He is a devout Jew who believes in prayer, charity, good deeds, and devotion to G-d.”

WAS CHILD WHEN HITLER ROSE TO POWER

Born in Pressburg, Czechoslovakia, (now Bratislava, Slovakia), Rabbi Cohn was 10 years old when Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1939. A mere five years later, at age 15, he was fighting the Nazis, who had destroyed his family and his home, according to his life story chronicled by Shira Stoll, a former Advance multimedia specialist.

In 1942, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, his parents managed to smuggle him over the border to Hungary, which the Nazis had not yet invaded.

Through his contacts with the underground, Rabbi Cohn was able to obtain a false Gestapo military order to report to the town of Svetkrisenteronim, where the German outpost was located next to the location of the Partisan army. He then would cross the bridge over the Hron River to a village called Dornosdena. In order to pass into Partisan territory safely, Rabbi Cohn pretended to be a spy for the Nazis.

“He spent about six months fighting the Nazis among the Partisans until 1945, when he returned home to look for his family. Out of a family of seven children, only two of Romi’s sisters, Hanna and Sara, and his father, Leopold, survived the war.

Rabbi Cohn left Eastern Europe in 1950, first living in Canada and then settling in Brooklyn, where he met his wife.

“Romi was a kind and humble spirit who had the kind of personality that made everyone in the room gravitate toward him,” Stoll said on Tuesday. “I remember first meeting him in February of 2018. Romi had told his story thousands of times and even wrote a book about his experience titled, “The Youngest Partisan,” but when he told me his story, it felt like he was letting me in on a secret — like he had never told anyone before.”

Rabbi Cohn recently published a new book, “The Ribnitzer Rebbe,” which tells the story of his mentor, Rabbi Chaim Zanvil Abramovitz.

‘HAD SO MUCH STRENGTH’

Lori Weintrob, a professor of history and director of the Holocaust Center at Wagner College, was present when Rabbi Cohn spoke before Congress.

“Like any survivor, he had so much strength, but he also had the burden of how much he lost through anti-Semitism and Nazism,” she said on Tuesday.

As a strong supporter of Holocaust remembrance efforts, Rabbi Cohn was the first person to donate an artifact — his double-identity spy card — to the Wagner College Holocaust Center.

His life was commemorated in a play, “Rise Up: Young Holocaust Heroes,” performed at Wagner College.

Although childless, he was involved with many families, in part because of his religious circumcisions.

“He was just an incredibly generous person, his home was always open to people,” Weintrob said. “He was like a father figure to me and to my kids, too.”

Rabbi Cohn was “a downhill skiing champion” and “an amazing athlete” who enjoyed jet skiing and fishing. He raised peacocks and koi on his beach-front property in Eltingville, Weintrob said.

The Wagner College Holocaust Center is going to organize a remembrance event and details will be forthcoming, Weintrob said.

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© 2020 Staten Island Advance