By Joseph Wolkin
The Jewish world froze when 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were captured and murdered during the 1972 games in Munich. And while Jewish non-Israeli athletes were told they wouldn’t have extra protection, one man went above and beyond.
Three members of the Israeli team, his Jewish comrades, came over to him moments before a yachting event was about to get underway. They handed him the famous blue and white flag with a Star of David sitting in the middle of it.
Donald Cohan proudly carried the flag of his people that day, and his courageous act helped inspire him to lead the United States team to a bronze medal, son-in-law Jonathan Albert said.
Cohan, a former Olympic medalist, member of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, attorney and winner of the Senatorial Medal of Freedom, died Oct. 20. He was 88.
“He grew up in a very challenging circumstance when he was around 8 years old,” Albert said. “His family’s savings got wiped out. They really struggled, and he became very successful.”
Cohan earned a bronze medal during the 1972 Olympics as part of the United States’ sailing team. He was the first Jew on the team and the first to ever win a medal in that event.
Cohan was was not only an Olympian, but a distinguished scholar. Early in life, he became an attorney after earning a law degree from Harvard Law School.
He made sure to always represent the Jewish people, Albert said, and made sure to always be kind. It showed in gifts made to his alma mater, Amherst College, his presidency of JEVS and roles with the Directors Leadership Council of the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center and The Philadelphia Orchestra.
“His mother died when she was in her 90s, and he made sure she was comfortable and settled,” said his daughter, Rachel Cohan Albert. “He was amazing to his in-laws and extended family, to my mom and grandchildren. He was a type-A businessman, but his priorities were straight.”
She said life threw her father many obstacles, although none were as challenging as his fight against Hodgkin’s disease, which began in 1991.
He was told he would not survive.
“Winning a sailing regatta while fighting one of your cancers was an inconvenience, and not getting in the way of how you live your life,” Rachel Cohan Albert said.
But survive he did. When the cancer came back, which occurs in only 1 percent of Hodgkin’s patients, he defeated it again.
Even late in his life, following multiple bouts with cancer, he continued sailing. At the age of 72, he won the U.S. Soling Championship in Houston.
Cohan survived an extensive surgery earlier this year to remove a brain tumor. Hours after the surgery, he was making jokes, his daughter said.
“I have a very sophisticated real estate closing in 10 days,” Cohan said at the time. “I have two questions: One — will I damage my brain thinking about anything? Two — I want you to know I intend to be at that closing 10 days from now.”
Cohan is survived by his wife of 58 years Trina; daughters Rachel Cohan Albert and Susannah Cohan McQuillan; son Benjamin; grandchildren Sarah, Jake, Minori, Manna, Will, Matthew and Kara; and great-grandchildren Kaya and Sierra. l
Joseph Wolkin is a freelance writer.