Helen Degen Cohen ’57

Writing the War

By Donna Parker

“While they were heroic and good people, my parents did not want me to write.  They were very practical and thought writing was frivolous, and perhaps dangerous, in Europe.  The woman who hid me from the Nazis, when I was about eight, had a more spiritual sensibility and encouraged my proclivity for art.”

These telling words come from the award-winning poet and Holocaust survivor, Helen Degen Cohen (Halina Degenfisz) ’57, who emigrated to America with her parents in 1947 at the age of 12. 

“I spent those early years here trying to ‘Americanize’ myself.  I felt peer pressure. American kids thought of me as exotic, but I just wanted to blend in,” says Helen.

She attended the University of Illinois on the Navy Pier in Chicago at the beginning of her college career and finished undergraduate school at Trinity when her husband, Arnold, was stationed in San Antonio.

 “We were married while I was in college.  I just loved San Antonio.  I loved the climate and the great big skies of Texas.  It was great being on top of that hill at Trinity, looking down at the city.” 

Helen was always interested in comparative religion and remembers her New Testament professor, Paul Schwab Sr., department of religion, who invited her into his office to chat and seemed to find her opinions interesting. 

 “I remember having an intellectual conversation with him.  But, generally, I wish school had been more stimulating.  I was majoring in education, generally a dull major; but I found criminology and anthropology more interesting.” 

“Back then, in the 1950s, we were all going for an ‘M-R-S’ degree. It was expected of us to be housewives and mothers, or else to teach (which I love, by the way).”

Helen and her first husband (now deceased) had three children, all of them now grown and in successful careers of their own, but even as a young woman, Helen had a strong desire to express herself through art: first painting, then poetry and fiction.  Helen’s work, much of it based on her years as a Nazi captive, has garnered numerous awards including the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, first prize in the British Stand Magazine International Fiction Competition, and several Illinois Arts Council awards.

Asked what she thinks has been her greatest achievement, Helen said, "Learning, and thinking for myself."  She said it is still difficult, because people continue to tell her that she has this huge talent, but she may be still battling to overcome the influence of her parents, who were also protective, and wanted her safe. "It was all about survival for them, during wartime – there really wasn’t time to think about anything else.  It is, of course, more than a miracle that they saved both themselves and their child."

You may learn more about Helen’s life and contact her through her Web site at: