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May 03, 2012

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SD

Erasmus Hall Class of '63: Snapshots of Loss

Coby Hoffman: I met Coby when we were taking classes at Erasmus Hall High School. We were in one or two together, science and/or math as I recall, and always had friendly words and greetings for each other the whole time we were in school. He was a genuinely good person and could not have been nicer to me. The last time I met him was shortly after we graduated. I was across the street from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York when I saw him behind the counter at a corner newsstand. We greeted each other and caught up with each other's news as people do. It turned out that the newsstand belonged to his father and since Coby was on a college holiday break he was helping his father out at the newsstand. He was that kind of person and, from what I understood later, always was.

Coby died at age 47 in Cairo at a restaurant in the Semiramis Inter-Continental Hotel, gunned down with several others by Sabir Farahat Abu il-Ala, a 28-year-old mentally unstable musician. His colleague Robert L. Guidi also died. Both were career engineers for the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, in Egypt on business as consultants for the Egyptian government. Coby's wife and two teenage children survived him. He was a devoted husband and father, described by a relative as a real family person and a hard-working one. The story made headlines in several American newspapers.

The two surviving spouses sued the Inter-Continental Hotels Corp., accusing them of lax security. A US Federal District Court ruled that the case should be tried in Egypt because the families of other European victims had filed suit there. The wives disagreed and eventually in 2000 the US Court of Appeals agreed with the Plaintiffs and reversed the lower court's ruling, allowing them to bring suit in New York. It presumably is still in litigation there or perhaps has been settled without publicity. Meanwhile, the gunman, first acknowledged by the Egyptian government not as a terrorist but as a lunatic, escaped from a mental hospital and killed ten more people. He was eventually publicly acknowledged by Egyptian officials as a Muslim militant terrorist, and executed.

The two surviving spouses, never having met while their husbands were alive, became close friends united in seeking justice for their slain husbands.

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Paula Fass: Paula was unquestionably the star pupil in Mrs. Fannie Spieler's World History class at Erasmus, wherein I was present but did not shine. She became a noted historian, and in the late 1970s I noticed that one of her publications, probably the Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920's, was given a full review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Her area of specialization has been the history of children. She is the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California at Berkeley, and has been a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

One of her most discussed books is Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America, where she analyzes and puts into perspective such notable cases a those involving Leopold and Loeb, the Charles Lindbergh baby, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Etan Patz. In 2012 she was featured in a PBS Nova program, Who Kidnapped Lindbergh's Son?, an inquiry produced in the eightieth anniversary year of the notorious crime.

She also wrote Inheriting the Holocaust: A Second Generation Memoir. In it she describes how her parents were victims of the Holocaust in that her mother lost her first husband and a son, and her father his first wife and four children -- as well as many other relatives. Her parents eventually were able to emigrate to the United States, where Fass and her sister grew up.

Fass went to Poland for the first time in 2000, to research the book after both of her parents were dead. She located birth certificates, graves, the register from the Jewish ghetto in Lodz where her parents lived during WW II, and surviving notebooks of those who lived through those times. Her parents never talked about how they survived when others did not, or how they met. She also wanted the story to be real for her own two children, one of whom accompanied her to Poland.

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Coby lost his life in a senseless act of violence on foreign soil. Paula spent much of her career as a historian in interpreting why violence occurs and how it affects us and our loved ones. In both of their stories we can try to make sense of how the world works and how we can live through what has touched us to the core.

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