Remembering Fré Cohen

One of the aspects of the Holocaust that is often forgotten about, maybe on purpose, is suicide. There were so many who in their desperation only saw one way out and that was by taking their own lives.

Frederika Sophia (Fré) Cohen was born on 11 August 1903 in Amsterdam. She was the oldest daughter of diamond cutter Levie Cohen, a member of the Social-Democrat Jewish community in Amsterdam. Like many other diamond workers, Levie Cohen was often out of work. Therefore, the Cohen family moved to Antwerp in Belgium, where there was more work in the diamond business. After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the family returned to Amsterdam.

Fré Cohen was a successful and image-defining woman in the men’s world of graphic design. She was of great importance to the Amsterdam School. In her work, both the formal language and the ideals of the Amsterdam School are clearly expressed. She designed graphic print work for the city of Amsterdam, for the socialist movement, such as the Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP), the Arbeiders Jeugd Centrale (AJC), trade unions, and cooperatives.

Her Jewish origins are in keeping with the story of the Amsterdam School, which had an important basis in the Jewish proletariat, including the diamond working movement.

She had a large output of rather varied printed matter, from window bills to bookplates, diplomas, illustrations, running headers, baby announcements, and postcards. There are also some three-dimensional works such as boxes and scale models. She created folders and maps for Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, in a modernist style using gold, red and blue. Besides, she made paintings, portraits, drawings, woodcuts, and linocuts.

In 1935, the Maastricht publisher A.A.M. Stols publishes Cohen’s work in Het Schoone Boek. 15) Even though his interest is mainly in bibliophile productions and not in large, machine-made editions.

Stols’s review of Cohen’s work demonstrates the success of publishers such as the World Library and Querido that use new techniques and attract ‘artists and innovators in this field.

During the occupation, in 1941 and 1942, Cohen made picture postcards for the Gebroeders Spanjerberg company, with traditional costumes from Huizen, Bunschoten-Spakenburg, and Zeeland towns.

In November 1941, Cohen was appointed as a teacher at the Jewish applied arts school W.A. van Leer. Not only Dutch Jews but also German emigrants, such as Stefan Schlesinger and Leon Kratzenstein, taught at the Jewish applied arts school Van Leer.

The teachers of the school were initially exempt from deportation. Fré Cohen was one of the gesperrden (exempt), but in May 1942 received a call-up for Arbeitseinsatz and then went into hiding. First with J. Uylings in Amsterdam, where she hid for three weeks. Then she went into hiding in Diemen, with her friend Rie Keesje, after that in Hilversum, with the parents of Pieter Brattinga, and finally, she hid in Lochem with Margo Vos and finally in Borne, with Hendrik and Mien Zomer. During that period she continued to work illegally when she could. On 12 June 1943, she was arrested by the Germans in Borne. In haste, she took the pills she had hoarded for such an emergency. After two days in a coma, she died on 14 June 1943 at the age of 39 at a hospital in Hengelo.

Such a tragedy and all the art that would never be created.



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