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Obituary: Hans Cohn

Blind activist who opened many worlds to the visually impaired

    A physiotherapist who changed the environment for the blind, Hans Cohn, who has died at the age of 94, opened the world of chess, entertainment and public transport to the visually impaired. He was appointed MBE in 1997. At the age of 11, he lost the sight in his left eye after being attacked by a schoolmate, son of a Nazi official, with a blow intended for his Jewish neighbour.

    His parents took him to Holland, where a surgeon failed to save the eye. An infection spread to his right eye and he was completely blind at 13.

    In May 1938, his mother Lucie sent him to Worcester College, a private Victorian-founded boarding school, now part of the Royal National Institute for the Blind. He was the only Jewish boy.

    On prize day, he interpreted for the visiting head of Vienna’s institute for the blind and for the school’s patron, former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who interceded to save him from internment in 1940.

    His mother arrived in February 1939 and became cook-matron at a Jewish hostel to help her husband Georg escape Germany. But, by the end of August, Germany closed its borders. Georg had remained, working as a lawyer to pay his son’s fees. In 1941, he was sent to the Czech transit camp Terezin, where he died during an “operation”.

    The Jewish Blind Society took over Hans’s education and, in 1942, aged 19, he left school for a three-year RNIB physiotherapy course. Still officially an enemy alien — he was not naturalised until 1947 — he was the first non-British citizen trained under the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists. The profession was in great demand for post-war rehabilitation.

    Despite impaired hearing through contracting measles in his last year at school, Hans let nothing stand in his way. After 20 years working in clinics and hospitals, he ran the North-West London practice of a retiring colleague for more than 45 years until his own retirement in 2008, aged 85.

    Hans rescued people stranded in the October, 1947 “pea soup” fog, when over 30 died in train crashes. He guided people off trains and took them home. The railway staff thought him a hero and never asked to see his ticket. Always fit and athletic, he resumed his childhood love of skiing in 1968, when he discovered a hotel for the blind. In 1978, he switched to cross-country skiing and only stopped at 89 when he broke his hip.

    A photo of him on skis appeared in a skiing magazine read by an English ski-teaching couple who launched a British Ski Club for the Disabled.

    But his great love was chess. He joined the Willesden Chess Club in 1942 and the Braille Chess Association in 1945, becoming BCA’s secretary in the mid-1960s and editing a chess magazine from 1980-2000. He won tributes at the BCA’s 70th anniversary in 2002.

    He played in the first Blind Chess Olympiad in West Germany in 1951 followed by successive tournaments until 1980. He became secretary in 1964 and president in 1985 of the international association which ran the games.

    On the RNIB centenary in 1968, the institute helped finance a ski event in Weymouth with major donations obtained by Hans from business, charities, and individuals including Sir Isaiah Berlin. But his coup was to bring in the USSR and Israel for the first time, persuading Marks & Spencer boss Simon Marks to pay the Israeli team’s fares.

    Representing the consumer group Voice of the Listener and Viewer, he demonstrated audio description to the House of Lords during the 1990 BBC Charter revision. He introduced the German practice of a free theatre ticket for a guide, now widened to free entrance for all carers.

    Hans sat on 22 committees, many now merged to form Jewish Care, as well as a public utility strategy quango reviewing protection for the blind and elderly. Aided for 43 years by his five guide dogs — his main helper was his second wife, Berlin-born Stefi Steinhart, whom he married in 1961. She learned Braille and became the unofficial tour operator for chess teams and delegates. His first marriage to Martha Rossler was dissolved. Stefi predeceased him in 2017. Hans left his body to science.

    RUTH ROTHENBERG

    Hans Cohn: born May 6, 1923. 
Died January 28, 2018