Josef Albert Meisinger, the Nazi leader known as “the Butcher of Warsaw,” murdered 100,000 Jews in the Polish city’s ghetto between 1939 and 1941, but to former U.S. Army Sgt. Ed Cohen he was nothing more than a “yellow coward.”
The 98-year-old Cohen, who has been a trustee of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth for four decades, was among a small contingent assigned to guard Meisinger after he was arrested in Yokohama, Japan, by the Americans several days after the Japanese surrender in 1945. The Nazi had been serving as Gestapo liaison to the Japanese Secret Intelligence Service and the German embassy in Tokyo. He also had unsuccessfully pressured the Japanese to deport or establish concentration camps for Jews who had found refuge in Japan or in Japanese-controlled Shanghai.
“He was good at killing people or having people killed,” said Cohen. In the presence of his guards, however, Meisinger was deferential and easily cowed.
Cohen said his memories of Meisinger, who was later hanged in Poland for war crimes, were jogged while reading an article in the June 28 issue of NJ Jewish News that included mention of the Nazi.
“I hadn’t read or heard a thing about him in all these years until I read your paper,” he told a reporter.
Cohen, who was 21 years old when he began his five-year military stint, had been sent during his last year of service to the Philippines to prepare for the final anticipated land invasion of Japan. Instead, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered.
Cohen was part of a 300-soldier contingent sent to Japan, where he became an eyewitness to the signing of the official Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.
“I was right next to it,” said Cohen. “From the time the sun went up until it went down, there were planes flying overhead. Every naval ship was there with their guns pointed at Tokyo.”
With the war officially over, Cohen was given various duties over the next two months before being assigned to guard inmates in the Yokohama prison, where many Japanese war leaders were being held.
“The first day I was there,” Cohen said, “this big fat slob, this ugly man who weighed about 350 pounds and was about six-foot-six came sidling over to me. He showed me his mess kit, and I told him to go back and do it over again. He bowed to me and went back and did it over again. He came back and I told him the same — I don’t know why.”
Cohen said the prisoner spoke “enough English” to understand the commands. Curious about the German man, he asked another soldier if he knew who he was.
“He said to me, ‘That’s Col. Meisinger, the Butcher of Warsaw,’” said Cohen, as he watched Meisinger ask another soldier about the American soldier who had been so tough on him.
“When he was told, ‘His name is Cohen,’ he shrunk about four inches,” said Cohen with a smile on his face. “When he heard I was a Jew, you should have seen his face. From that time on, every time he saw me he bowed. He actually shrunk.”
One of Cohen’s fondest memories was helping himself to some of the 20 boxes of high-end cigars Meisinger had in his quarters, courtesy of a final shipment from the Third Reich.
“I just chased him out and smoked them,” said Cohen. “He was afraid of me.”
About 10 days after that initial encounter, the International Red Cross visited the prison. Meisinger filed a complaint against Cohen for denying him his sleeping pills.
“I responded to the Red Cross that he had been saving those pills to commit suicide, and they dropped the case against me.” According to Cohen, Meisinger had threatened to commit suicide because Cohen “kept taunting him that the Russians were coming for him because he had been in Poland and the Russians were in charge of Poland.” The Russians were known for their brutality against captured Nazis.
Among the other prisoners the Jersey City native guarded were the Japanese admiral who had planned the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the military leader who oversaw the 1942 Bataan death march. Some 75,000 Filipino and American troops were forced to make an arduous 65-mile trek to prison camps, with thousands dying in the intense heat along the way.
Also in Yokohama was Iva Toguri D’Aquino, suspected of being one of several English-speaking Japanese female broadcasters collectively known as “Tokyo Rose,” whose on-air harangues were intended to demoralize American troops. D’Aquino, who was born in the United States, was convicted of treason and served six years in prison. She was later pardoned by President Gerald Ford.
“I admired the Japanese,” said Cohen. “They did wrong and they knew they were going to die and they died like gentlemen. But Meisinger, he was nothing but a toad, a yellow coward.”
After the war, Cohen settled in New Brunswick and then Highland Park. He started a hospital service and sales company, which he eventually sold to Sylvania, for which he then worked until his retirement.
He held leadership positions in the temple, including serving as vice president for 14 years before becoming a trustee. Cohen and his wife, Freda, now live at the Parker at Stonegate Assisted Living Residence in Highland Park. They have one daughter living in Michigan.