Despite unfathomable losses, Ellen Kahn keeps going

I marvel at the resilience of some people. My kind-of-cousin Ellen Kahn, for one.

In the early 1930s, Ellen and Margaret Herz lived in a lovely apartment in Berlin. Their father, Walter, imported fine fabrics. The girls went to synagogue with their mother, Erna, on Saturdays. Their reward: lunch at the Kempinski, the best restaurant on the Kurfurstendamm. (Today a luxury hotel.) One day in the mid-1930s, Ellen and Margaret, both blondes, were stopped in the street by a photographer. He said, “I’d love to take your picture. You’re such beautiful Aryan girls.” The picture was published in the newspaper.

The girls didn’t know what Aryan meant. They soon learned.

After 1937, no longer permitted in their public school, they were sent to a private Jewish school. One day in early November, 1938, they got off the street car by their school. They noticed broken glass in front of stores in a little shopping area nearby. At school, Frau Goltschmidt convened an assembly.

“She told us the night before all Jewish-owned businesses were vandalized,” Ellen says. “Showcases and windows were broken. All the synagogues were burning. The school was closing down.”

Due to what became known as Kristallnacht, the girls and their mother began conducting services at home. Margaret was the cantor; Ellen, the rabbi. Because the Gestapo were arresting Jewish men, their father was rarely home. He spent time with non-Jewish friends.

“We saw Hitler youth everywhere in uniform. My good friend on the corner was a Hitler youth. It was a difficult, confusing time.”

England agreed to take in 10,000 Jewish children. Ellen’s mother applied for her daughters on the Kindertransport. “Margaret left one week in May; I left the next. My mother had to wave goodbye to us, not knowing if she’d see us again. Two times she ran after the train, sobbing.”

Most Kindertransport children went to orphanages. Margaret, 12, moved in with friends of friends from Germany. British neighbors of Margaret’s family sought a companion for their 3 year old. Ellen, 11, became that companion. She called her British hosts “Daddy and Mommy Smith.”

Within 2 weeks, Ellen learned enough English to make herself understood. She and Margaret attended a small school. Their parents made it to England in November, in the last group to leave Germany before WWII started. They moved in with friends in London. To be farther from the bombing, Ellen’s family moved west to Pangbourne, a picturesque village near Brighton, on the Thames.

After 9 months in England, the family’s visas for America came through, expedited by Detroit cousin/attorney Fred Butzel, Walter’s cousin. He implored Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg to use his influence. Ellen says, “Mr. Roosevelt wasn’t thrilled about welcoming Jews to America.”

The Herz family booked “terrible accommodations”—all they could get as few cruise ships were sailing in war-torn waters. Their small Canadian boat crammed with 300 passengers was escorted by military vessels. Because of the dodging involved in torpedo-studded waters, the voyage took 30 days. Ellen’s mother and sister were seasick the whole time.

The family arrived in Boston in 1940, greeted by a Jewish organization and put up in a hotel. They headed for New York. After a month, Walter hadn’t found find a job. They took an overnight train to Michigan. A fellow passenger heard Ellen and Margaret speaking in German. He was Max Gross, a German immigrant, with a drapery/slipcover business in Detroit. He needed a businessman to run the company. It became Gross & Herz.

After a year, Max and Walter parted. Walter called his new company Walter Herz Interiors. “My father was a teddy bear,” Ellen says. “Customers loved him.” At 18, Margaret (soon to be Demant) began working with her father. Eventually, with husband Henry, she took over. Walter Herz was a top design firm in Detroit. (In recent years, it was bought by my friend Susan Winton-Feinberg. As a design editor, I featured several homes she decorated.)

At 21, attending Detroit’s Wayne State U., Ellen dated a young man. When he called back, she told her mother to say she was out. Instead, her mother handed her the phone. The caller invited Ellen to a party.

The party took place in Franklin, MI, at a landscaped estate designed by renowned architect Albert Kahn. “My jaw dropped,” Ellen says. “It was a beautiful day. I dove into the pool and swam and loved every minute.” She met people who still remain best friends. She also met my cousin Bill Kahn, “a marvelous host and such a gentleman.” He grilled shish kebabs and introduced her to his mother. 5 months later, in 1949, Ellen and Bill married. Bill was booked to travel to Guatemala with his mother. Instead, he took Ellen on their honeymoon.

The couple lived in the gardener’s cottage on the estate. Bill “hated being an only child,” Ellen says. 9 and 1/2 months after their wedding, daughter Petra (Petie) was born. Sandy followed 14 months later. Rob, 3½ years after Sandy. They’d outgrown the cottage. Bill’s mother, Beryl, offered them the main house where they lived together for 53 years. (Bill died in 2007.) Ellen’s still there, surrounded by a fine photo collection, including images she took in her 50s as a professional photographer.

Sandy, a talented artist, horseback rider and guitar player, went to the U. of Colorado. “She had no fear,” her mother says. One day in Boulder, Sandy and 3 friends drove up a mountain in an open Jeep. A car hit them broadside. Sandy and a girlfriend were killed.

“It was a week after Petie’s 21st birthday,” Ellen says. “She never got over it.”

Petie finished college at American University. She worked for media firms including 60 Minutes and CBS. At 30, she married attorney Bob Thompson in the garden of the Kahn estate. They raised 2 children, Derek and Kira, in McLean, VA. Kira’s a creative exec at a production company with 20 C. Fox in L.A. Derek’s a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly and frequent contributor to NPR. His first book, Hitmakers: Why Things Become Popular, will be published in February. (I predict he’ll be a hitmaker himself.)

Ellen’s son Rob, while at Cranbrook prep school, acted in musicals and became a dancer. At 19, he joined the Paul Taylor dance company in N.Y. He met wife Carolyn at an audition. (In December, she’ll receive a lifetime achievement award from Dance Magazine.)

Having lost one daughter, in 2013, Ellen lost another. Petie, our delightful cousin, lost a brave fight against pancreatic cancer. 2 years later, Petie’s husband Bob died. Ellen’s smart, capable sister, Margaret, has dementia. Ellen’s her power of attorney.

A group of Petie’s devoted friends showed up at every turn of her struggle. The self-proclaimed Petie’s Posse remain in frequent touch with Ellen and with Petie’s kids. Every Mother’s Day, they send Ellen flowers. This month they sent them for her 89th birthday.

Anne and I recently hosted a Kahn family cocktail party in NYC. (See blog post on September 17, 2016.) We looked forward to seeing Ellen, Derek and Kira. It wasn’t to be. Ellen’s 9 and ½ month old great grandson died suddenly. The day of our reunion was the day of his funeral.

I ask how she manages to overcome such devastating losses.

“There are times I’m overwhelmed and would prefer not to be around. Times I’m so tired I feel I’ve had enough; I just can’t go on. But then I think about my adorable grandchildren. And my wonderful son who visits me once a month. So I do my best to stay healthy. Psychotherapy helps. I’m grateful for friends who keep me going. And the sun when it shines. No one gets over crushing losses. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

Thanks, Ellen, for the inspiration. I’m proud to call you cousin. And friend.

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27 thoughts on “Despite unfathomable losses, Ellen Kahn keeps going

  1. Alison

    With pure eloquence, you have captured Ellen’s tragedies and also her triumphs. What shines through her life is her indomitable spirit; it is a light that inspires everyone around her. Thank you for giving all of us this gift of her story!
    With love and gratitude,

  2. sally robinson

    what a beautiful piece about my dear cousin who has managed to rise above all her misfortunes as if cursed. But she never complains,is always cheerful and always wants to help others…an inspiration for all of us…I am so glad you have written this story,Suzie…thankyou…sally robinson

  3. Barbara and Steve Gutman

    Dear Suzy,

    We have lived across from Ellen for the last 11 years and we’ve gotten to know her and come to love her. We’ve heard parts of her story, but we were thrilled that she forwarded us your inspiring story of her life. Thank you for filling in all the blanks and telling us the story of this remarkable “lady” in your beautifully written article. We feel privileged to call Ellen a friend. She definitely is an inspiration!

  4. Suzy Farbman Post author

    as emailed from Lois Cohn
    Well you did it again with your wonderful, sensitive article about Ellen. I got tears in my eyes when I read it. Such moving stories are not usually about people you know and love, so seeing her life through your written words was ever so special.
    Ellen, this diminutive beautiful friend of ours is amazingly strong and brave–the essence of a survivor!
    Suzy, you are not only a dear friend, but one hell of a writer!

    1. Suzy Farbman Post author

      Wow, Lois! What a smart, sensitive, loving comment. I’m honored by your words, and I know Ellen is, too. Thanks so much for taking the time to share such meaningful thoughts.

    2. Michelle Perron

      Suzy…I had no idea of Ellen’s extraordinary history. What an honorable life she’s led. I’m in awe. Thank you for this! XO, Michelle

  5. Suzy Farbman Post author

    as emailed from Ellen Kahn
    Dear Suzy,
    Have sent your blog of My Story to many friends and family.
    I have received such warm and heartfelt responses and I’m sure so have you.
    Thanks again for encapsulating my life in such caring words. It was’t easy .
    Much love and hugs,

    1. Suzy Farbman Post author

      Love and hugs back at you. It was entirely my pleasure. An honor to be able to share your story. Thanks for the sweet note.

  6. Shirley Piku

    Thank you for sharing. Ellen always has a smile so we never know the sadness that she has conquered!

  7. carolyn adams

    Dear Suzy,
    What a beautifully written story about Ellen Kahn! You have managed to weave the tragedies and the high points together, creating a tapestry of a human life; a portrait of a brave woman who has both endured and enjoyed and continues, through it all, to count her blessings.
    Carolyn Adams Kahn

    1. Suzy Farbman Post author

      And what a beautifully written comment. I love the way you described this column. Thanks so much, Carolyn.

  8. Suzy Farbman Post author

    as emailed from Anne Towbes:
    You somehow managed to tell all the good things about Ellen’s life, while pouring on one sad thing after another. What a roller coaster life she has had. Yet optimism shines through. Amazing lady.

  9. Burton Farbman

    What an inspirational person and story. I pray every night for peace and safety for all in our wonderful country. Let’s make this thanksgiving the best ever. Love to you Ellen and to my wife Suzy.god Bless America

    1. Suzy Farbman Post author

      Thanks, hon. Honored and touched by your comment. God HAS Blessed America and will hopefully do so forever.

  10. Suzy Farbman Post author

    as emailed from Ernie Ruben
    What a lovely article! You did Ellen justice! She is such a generous, forgiving person and deserves the best! We love Ellen!!!

  11. Suzy Farbman Post author

    Thanks, Ellen. Glad you enjoyed. Honored to record your remarkable history. Thanks for showing us it’s possible to survive just about anything. Keep smiling.

  12. Suzy Farbman Post author

    as emailed from Ellen Kahn
    Suzy, dear, you really captured my story. So well done and in such a concise and beautifully expressed manner.

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