Of all the cities in which a Jewish Holocaust survivor might choose to open a restaurant, a mere 15 years after the end of the Second World War, Munich, birthplace of the Nazi movement, would be the least appealing option. At least, you would think so.
But that is exactly what Kurt Cohen and with his wife, Mirijam, did. And the restaurant they established in 1960 on Theresienstrasse, a short stroll away from the site of the Nazi Party HQ at the Braunes Haus, is still going strong in the hands of the Cohens’ son, Jacques, and his Israeli-born wife, Yochi.
Cohen’s is Munich’s only Jewish restaurant, not counting the one in the local Jewish community centre. Bright and airy and sited in a small, pleasant courtyard, it lies in the heart of Schwabing, the student district. Nearby is the imposing Munich University, along with many of the city’s art galleries and museums. (A couple of streets away is another restaurant, the Osteria Italiana, once Hitler’s favourite.)
Jacques, who is 65 and sports a straggly grey pony-tail, looks more like an ageing rock musician than a restaurateur, while Yochi is a redhead with an impish sense of humour. They met in Israel in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War; Jacques was there as a volunteer to help in the war effort. The following year, they married and Yochi joined her husband in Munich, with no qualms at all, although her mother had been an inmate at Bergen-Belsen. “I’m a cosmopolitan person,” she says, by way of vague explanation.
The Cohens were originally a Hamburg-based family, able to trace their roots back to the 17th century. Kurt Cohen was a 22-year-old university student, fluent in English and French as well as German, when Kristallnacht shattered the remaining hopes of the country’s Jews that they could ride out the Nazi storm.
He smuggled himself on to a ship and ended up in Antwerp, where he secured forged documents and met Mirijam, also living in Belgium with forged papers. They married in 1942 and survived the rest of the war in Belgium, returning to Germany together in 1948.
After staying in various displaced persons camps, they settled in Bavaria and in 1955 moved to Munich, where, a few years later, they opened Cohen’s.
Why a restaurant? Had Kurt been working in the catering business? “No,” Jacques explains. “It was because Mirijam was a good cook, having worked as a private cook for a family during the war.”
The restaurant’s original premises were at 60 Theresienstrasse, a little way up the street from its current location at no 31. It hardly needs saying that the business has been an enduring success, and boasts numerous stamm Gäste (regular customers) who have been going there for years.
One of them is Dr Thomas Ruzicka. A professor of medicine at Munich University, he says he has been eating at Cohen’s since he was a child in the 1970s.
“My parents would take me. It was a social gathering place for them, not just a restaurant. They would meet their friends, play cards.”
Now he brings his own companions to eat at the restaurant — Jews and non-Jews alike. At his table sit visiting friends and medical colleagues from Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Israel.
“My parents are no longer alive but I’m continuing the tradition.” he says. “And here you can get the best Wiener schnitzel in town.”
Yochi, hovering nearby, flashes a proud smile. “Yes, that’s true.”
She explains that they serve “kosher-style food — traditional but secular”. So, a pork-free zone but no kosher kitchen as such, “because,” she says, “we would have to pay for a mashgiach to supervise our kosher status, and that’s expensive”. In any case, Yochi estimates that 90 per cent of their customers are non-Jews.
Mirijam Cohen died in 1990 and Kurt in 2006. Jacques and Yochi have been running Cohen’s for the past 14 years.
And they have added an educational aspect to it. They run Sunday “lunch and lecture” events, at which Dr Michael Heinzmann, of the university, speaks about Jewish culture while his audience munches on pirogi (dumplings) and Königsberg meatballs.
And during the week they host a “schools and tolerance” programme: lunchtime talks for groups of children from schools throughout Munich (“including Muslim schools,” Yochi points out), at which the pupils sample Jewish food as they learn about Jewish life and traditions.
But as a very visible manifestation of Jewish life in a city forever associated with the Nazis, have the Cohens experienced antisemitism?
“We have had no real trouble,” Jacques says.“But every year on April 20 [Hitler’s birthday] we get a phone call asking to reserve a large table that night for a birthday celebration. A joke, in very bad taste. I just say: ‘You’re crazy’ and hang up.
“Otherwise, I feel very comfortable here. The Munich police are diligent and helpful. On Jewish holidays they send officers to keep an eye on the restaurant, to make sure there is no problem.”
Business is brisk, Yochi says. This month they are catering for a large Jewish wedding (Munich’s Jewish community is 10,000-strong) and soon after that they will host a book launch for a (non-Jewish) author.
The Cohens’ sons, Pascal and Herbert, both worked at the restaurant before deciding it was not for them. Now they are living abroad, so there will be no third generation to head the family business.
“When Jacques and I are gone,” Yochi states matter-of-factly, “the restaurant will die. But that is OK. Children must be free to choose their own lives.”