The Continued Destruction of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter

Local landmarks approved for demolition

Though the chances of stopping the destruction seem small, activists continue their efforts to save cultural heritage sites in the Hungarian capital (Source images: Fortepan / Berkó Pál and Kispados; CC BY-SA 3.0)

A few days ago, news that one of the oldest houses in the Jewish district of Budapest will soon be demolished spread like wildfire on social media, sparking outrage.

The house at Kazinczy Street 55 will be leveled to make way for a 5-storey hotel belonging to a company linked to people with friends in high places. Although from an architectural perspective the house is rather nondescript, it is one of the last remnants of how the Jewish district looked before large-scale construction projects at the end of the 19th century.

This little house witnessed the crushing of the Revolution of 1849, the Second World War, the Revolution of 1956 and the horrors of the ghetto in 1944-45.

Budapest, 1945 (Photo: Fortepan / Kramer István dr; CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1834, a man named József Schneider bought the building, which at the time had only one floor. It was here that he created the “Magyar Kártya” card game still popular today. Schneider decided to illustrate some of the cards with the figure of William Tell, as a symbol of the Hungarian struggle for independence from the Habsburgs.

“Magyar Kártya” cards, ca. 1860

Towards the end of the 19th century, the building housed a fashion store that belonged to Mór Rothauser, a distant relative of the famous opera singer Teréz Rothauser, who starred for years as part of the  Berlin Royal Opera before ultimately being murdered in Theresienstadt during the Holocaust.

Kazinczy Street 55 when it was the Rothauser fashion store
(Source: Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum,

In 1895, Cecília Fischer established a brothel in the house, which was equipped with running water and modern toilets, a first for such an establishment in Budapest.

Ten years later, followers of the Theosophical Movement, founded by Helena Blavatsky, bought the building. This esoteric movement influenced some of the greatest minds of the turn of the 20th century, including Thomas Edison, Alfred Russel Wallace, Vassily Kandinsky, Paul Gauguin, Arthur Conan Doyle and even Maria Montessori.

The disciples of the movement left their symbol on the door of the house.

The symbol of the Theosophical Movement remains on the front door of Kazinczy Street 55 until today (Photo: Vincent Vizkelety)

After it was vacated by the movement’s adherents, the building housed several small businesses before being purchased by Tamás Wichmann, three-time Olympic medal-winning canoeist. He opened a famous tavern there, which survived Hungary’s 1989 regime change and quickly became a legendary hangout for locals.

No sign indicated the establishment’s existence, and its prices made it a hidden gem amid the dozens of bars catering to tourists’ tastes (and budgets).

Wichmann’s tavern, 2009. A small plaque next to the door indicates that József Schneider created the “Magyar Kártya” game in the very same building (Photo: Jerzy Celichowski; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, in 2018 Tamás Wichmann announced that he was forced to close his business after becoming seriously ill. The Olympic champion, who passed away in 2020, had greatly improved the quality of life in the district by funding a new playground in place of a parking lot next to his establishment.

The building was bought by a company with ties to government officials, which initially rented the ground floor to a pizzeria. On December 23, 2019, a building permit was filed for a hotel, which was approved on August 10, 2020.

Leading Hungarian news outlets have recently reported that adjacent and nearby lots on Király Street, including the playground developed by Wichmann, will also be demolished soon. These tenements, built during the first half of the 19th century, are also part of Budapest’s Jewish district, each an important part of the city’s history.

A Jewish wedding on Kazinczy Street, 1946 (Photo: Fortepan / Hámori Gyula; CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1891, a wealthy Jewish man named Mór Ungerleider opened a café at Király Street 27. Five years later, to attract clients, he came up with the idea of screening a motion picture there – for the first time in Budapest!

Ungerleider immediately understood that movies were going to become very popular, and he went on to own a number of theaters including the Royal-Apollo and the Apolló mozgó, the biggest movie theater in Budapest in the early years of the 20th century. Along with partners Lajos Weitzenfeld and Imre Roboz, Ungerleider founded the Főnix movie production company, which produced many films throughout the 1920s.

Ad for a screening of Cecille B. DeMille’s film “The Sign of the Cross” (known as “Ave Caesar” in Hungarian) at the Royal-Apollo Theater in Budapest, printed in Egyenlöség⁩⁩, 4 February 1933; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Despite their importance and the mobilization of many local history and culture enthusiasts, the chances of saving these historic landmarks from demolition seems small.

The news leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those who witnessed a wave of destruction in the Jewish quarter between 2002 and 2010, when the disappearance of many historic buildings occurred after the district’s local council considerably weakened protections for historical monuments.

Plaque on Kazinczy Street placed by a group of artist activists, 2014 (Photo: Kispados; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Activists continue efforts to save historical treasures from destruction, as countless buildings linked to Jewish and general Budapester history are constantly under threat, with the prospects of financial profit unfortunately often outweighing the importance of preserving cultural heritage.

UPDATE: Soon after this article was published, following extensive civil society and media efforts, the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office announced that the building at Kazinczy 55 will be registered as an historical monument, and saved from demolition.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

Five-Hundred Years in the Life of the Amon Family

From the surrender of Spain to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent and beyond, they were there

For centuries, members of the Amon family served as advisers and physicians to sultans, esteemed rabbis and businessmen across three continents

The name first appears in the first book of the Torah.

The Almighty – in bestowing a new name upon Abram – announces to him that “Your name will be ‘Abraham,’ for I have made you the father of many [Av Hamon] nations.”

Abraham contemplating the multitude of stars, by E.M. Lillien. From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The name ‘Hamon’ thus translates as ‘multitude’ or ‘many’.

Talmudic scholars, moreover, indicated that there exists a deeper meaning to this name. Indeed, the commentators state that the very name “Abraham” is but an abbreviation of “Av Hamon,” (‘Father of Many’), while each letter signifies a special attribute or character trait of Abraham, the progenitor of not only the Jewish people, but of monotheism itself.

As a last name, it will variably be spelled “Hamon” or “Amon”.


Abraham to Isaac

The first individual who bears this name in the historical record (and thus my family’s first appearance) seems to be Isaac Amon of Granada in the late 15th century.

Private physician to Muhammad XII (or Boabdil) the last Nasrid sultan of Granada, Isaac witnessed the surrender of the last Muslim ruled city to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs, in January 1492.

A patio in the Alhambra illustrated in the 19th century book Reino de Granada. From the National Library of Israel collection
Alhambra design details illustrated in the 19th century book Reino de Granada. From the National Library of Israel collection

Besides some speculation, history tragically reveals no more of this forebear of the Amon family.

It does, however, record the existence of another Amon named Joseph, a younger relative who was also in Granada at that time.

One historian believed that Joseph was born in Italy, scion of the famous family of Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, though the consensus is that the Amon family is of Iberian origin.

Three months after the capture of Granada, and with it the end of the Reconquista (the Christian reconquest of Muslim Spain), Ferdinand and Isabella promulgated the infamous Edict of Expulsion from the Alhambra, ordering all professing Jews to convert or leave on pain of death by July 31, 1492. Following Tisha B’Av of that year, the last Jews left Spain, on the same day Christopher Columbus departed on his voyage of exploration.

Depiction of Jews fleeing Spain, from a 19th century book on the Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collections

At the sultan’s court

Joseph and his infant son Moses fled to the safety of the Ottoman Empire, along with multitudes of their co-religionists. As countless Jews arrived in Constantinople, Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512) is famously said to have declared that by expelling their country’s Jews, Ferdinand and Isabella had impoverished their own country and enriched his own.

Bayezid II

Notwithstanding this venerable story, Amon family lore holds that Sultan Bayezid ordered Joseph to declare the Shahada and convert to Islam.

He was given three days to decide.

Joseph refused and defiantly proclaimed that he, his family, and his brethren had fled their ancestral homeland in search of religious liberty. He offered up his life but declared that he would not betray his faith.

Impressed by his staunch conviction, Bayezid invited Joseph to become his physician and advisor. Consequently, Joseph loyally served Bayezid and his son Selim I (r. 1512-1520), often accompanying them on military expeditions to Egypt and Syria, as the Ottoman Empire continued to increase its vast territorial holdings.

Joseph’s son Moses, who had left Spain as an infant, rose even higher than his father in the esteem and service of the Sultan and his Jewish brethren. He served as physician, advisor, and diplomat to Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566), the longest reigning Ottoman sultan, throughout much of his 46 years in power.

Excerpt on ophthalmology from a 16th medical text apparently written by Joseph or Moses Amon. From the Aharon Meir Mazia Collection, available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection


Recently published edition of a treatise on dentistry by Moshe Hamon

Moses funded a yeshiva, paid Jewish scholars to translate great works, and valiantly defended his brethren from infamous blood libel allegations. Most significantly, he persuaded Suleiman to intervene on Dona Gracia Nasi’s behalf with Venetian authorities, thus allowing her to immigrate to Constantinople.

Etching of Doctor Moses Amon by 16th century French diplomat Nicolas de Nicolay

Although other Amons may be mentioned in various encyclopedias and resources, none of them merited to receive the historic stature or station of these three forefathers, all of them medieval physicians.


The Amons of late-Ottoman Istanbul

Closer to our own time, my great-great grandfather Ishak Amon Effendi is the earliest known member of my directly traceable family branch.

Born and raised in Istanbul, he was a teacher of mathematics, a rabbi, and a member of the Communal Council. His grandson (my grandfather) told me that as a sign of his prestige, Rabbi Ishak was even offered the position of Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire following the Turkish War for Independence.

Unwilling to become involved in political machinations, he declined the offer to succeed Rabbi Haim Nahum Effendi, who had left to become Chief Rabbi of Egypt. Nonetheless, the Ottoman government bestowed “Effendi” (a title of nobility equivalent to being knighted in England and rarely given to Jews) upon him as a sign of the esteem in which he was held.

In this article published in the Eliezer Ben-Yehuda publication Hashkafa on 9 November 1906, Ishak Amon (in Hebrew “יצחק המון”) is mentioned as one of the notable residents of Istanbul (in Hebrew “קושטא”) who voted for the new Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

In August 2019, with the assistance of the Turkish Chief Rabbinate, the Neve Shalom Synagogue, a good friend named Ismail Baran Can Yildirim, and several cemetery employees (who barely spoke English), Rabbi Ishak’s grave was finally found in the Sephardic cemetery of Istanbul, located in the Arnavutköy neighborhood.

Isaac Amon at the grave of Rabbi Ishak Amon Effendi in Istanbul

Though the letters are fading, words in Turkish and Hebrew note that he was honored by the nation for his contributions and mourned by his people.

Rabbi Ishak’s son Davit was my great-grandfather. Born in 1881, the same year as Ataturk, he owned and operated his own import-export business in Istanbul. Married by Rabbi Raphael David Saban, the future Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Davit had two brothers and a sister. He died in 1977, the year after my father started medical school, and a dozen years before I was born in the United States.


The Midwest via modern Turkey

His son – my grandfather – Rene Isaac Amon, was a formative influence in my own life. Born in December 1923, a month and a half after Ataturk proclaimed the Turkish Republic, he grew up in a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional, multi-national neighborhood of Istanbul. He was a polyglot, who spoke French with his parents, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) with his grandparents, Greek with his friends, Turkish in the streets, and Hebrew in school. He later learned German and Russian for study purposes and perfected his English as an attaché between the Turkish Army and the British military during the Korean War.

As a teenager, he met Ataturk a few months before the latter’s death. He married my grandmother, Denise Nehmad from Beirut, in Istanbul’s Neve Shalom Synagogue in December 1952. Then-Chief Rabbi Raphael David Saban presided over the ceremony.

Wedding photo of Denis and Rene Isaac Amon

Shortly thereafter, my grandparents made the decision to move to America, with a young child – my father Erol – in tow. Arriving in Chicago during fall 1957 (when my dad was three years old), my grandparents had to reorient themselves to a new culture.

My grandfather’s Masters in Engineering from Istanbul Technical University was insufficient for career advancement.  As such, despite 15 years of practice, he attended Northwestern University to obtain his PhD (and thus earn “his union card” as he put it). In his early 40s, he was thus writing his dissertation, teaching full time at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and raising my father.

Living in St. Louis, I visited my grandparents every summer growing up. During the High Holidays, they would take the train or get a ride from Chicago to St. Louis and stay with us for a few months.

Denis and Rene Isaac Amon

My grandfather’s interests were numerous and his curiosity insatiable. He continued to read works in multiple languages, discuss religion, history, literature, engage with mathematical problems, and watch movies with us at night.


Into the 21st century

My grandmother (of Nahmad and Safra family origin), passed on in September 2013, while my grandfather passed on in October 2018, two months’ shy of his 95th birthday.

Mentally lucid and cognizant until the end, (speaking in French and Ladino with friends in person and on the phone even just a few days before his passing), he impressed upon our family the importance of remembering our history and passing it on to future descendants, to those who will unfortunately not know him except through our indelible recollections and memories.

In this final enterprise, he followed the notable example of our lawgiver and prophet Moses, who near the end of his own life exhorted the Nation of Israel to “remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past. Ask your father and he will inform you; your elders and they will tell you.”

Lesser Ury’s “Moses am Sinai”, early 20th century (Publisher: J. Wieland & Co). From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection

My genetic story (from 23&Me) reveals that I have relatives on five continents. Indeed, the Amon Diaspora spans the globe; members live in the United States (such as Cleveland, Seattle, New York, Boston, and St. Louis), Costa Rica, Turkey, Israel, France, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Even more significantly, my Amon ancestors hail from Egypt, Iraq, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon, Spain and Portugal. Though great expanses of space and time separate us, they live on in us.

Our DNA is the “living embodiment” of our chronicle in the scroll of family, Jewish, and human history.

It is said that we are only remembered for three generations. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon us to bear witness to the lives of our ancestors throughout the centuries, so they may live on for posterity. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and member of the House of Lords memorably wrote, “I hear their call to write the next chapter… [and] continue their journey because… I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll.”

Ultimately, from 15th century Isaac Amon to 21st century Isaac Amon, the story and legacy continues.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

Two-Gun Cohen: Artful Dodger Turned Chinese Legend and Hero of Israel

“He was like a character out of a book. He was like something somebody wrote.”

Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen – known as "Ma Kun" in Chinese – surrounded by troops, July 1926. Original image from the Collection of Josef L. Rich OBE

“It turned out that General Two-Gun Cohen wasn’t kidding when he said he had influence with the Chinese,” recalled Canadian Jewish Congress leader Saul Hayes. Not only did he know the Chinese members, but “he would get us the damnedest documents. I never asked how or why.”

One day while Hayes was walking down the street with Cohen they came across Wellington Koo, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Vice Premier H.H. Kung, and Premier T.V. Soong.

“And, by God, the first thing I know is they embrace the man.”

It was April 1945, right before Nazi Germany surrendered and the thousand-year Third Reich died. Four-dozen nations had gathered in San Francisco to form the United Nations. Britain had controlled Palestine since they assumed stewardship of it following World War I, and many Jews were anxious about the future of the British mandate for the territory.

T. V. Soong, Chairman of the Chinese Delegation, addresses the First Plenary Session at the San Francisco Conference, on 26 April 1945 (UN Photo/Rosenberg; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Representatives from such groups as the American Jewish Conference and the Jewish Agency of Palestine – along with prominent leaders like Rabbis Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver – descended on the Bay City to lobby their cause.

Jewish organizations especially worried that Britain might abandon her commitment to establish a Jewish homeland. They sought to make sure the UN did not reduce or eliminate Jewish rights in Palestine under the 1917 Balfour Declaration – which states that Britain “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” – or the 1922 League of Nations-approved mandate over Palestine. They therefore hoped for the insertion of a clause within the UN charter that protected the rights of minority groups like those of the Jews living in Palestine.

Yet they were not the only lobbyists there. An Arab delegation hoped that the council would only recognize the rights of the single largest group in each trusteeship territory. In Palestine, the Arabs made up the majority.

The Jewish delegates held planning meetings and prepared for the formal sessions, yet struggled to gain access to some delegations. One group the Zionists could not contact was the Chinese. Then Rabbi Israel Goldstein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America, recalled that Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen had settled in Montreal during the war.

Rabbi Israel Goldstein visiting newly established settlements in the Negev, 1969 (Photo: Dan Hadani). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Goldstein had recently met the adventurer who had improbably become a general in the Chinese Army. The rabbi cabled him, “urging him to fly out to San Francisco and assist us with an introduction.”

Cohen happily obliged.

Cohen, who had spent two decades in China, knew many of that nation’s leaders and offered to introduce Jewish Agency leader Eliahu Elath and others to his friends in the Chinese delegation.

The group’s lobbying of all the national delegates paid off. Palestine remained a mandated territory, and Clause 80 – nicknamed the “Palestine Clause” of the U.N. Charter – protected the rights “of any states or any people” within the trusteeships.

As Saul Hayes later said:

“I am not suggesting that if we didn’t succeed there’d be no state of Israel… I am suggesting it would have taken a great many years of hard slogging if it had ever gone into the trusteeship division.”


From London’s East End to the Canadian prairies

Morris Abraham Cohen was an anomaly.

No one would have suspected that a man who started out as a juvenile delinquent would turn out so well. Born on August 3, 1887 in Poland into an Orthodox family, he arrived in London as a young child, and grew up in the East End of London. He was more of an Artful Dodger than a yeshiva bucher, and was arrested as a teenager for picking pockets. The authorities shipped him off to an industrial school for wayward Jewish kids.

Map of East London color coded by percentage of Jewish residents, 1900. Black indicates a population that is 95-100% Jewish. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Like many of those the British wished to be rid of, they then packed Cohen off to western Canada in 1905. On a farm outside the town of Whitewood, Saskatchewan he got to work planting crops, tending to the animals and helping with the chores. And for someone who would one day be known as “Two-Gun,” he also learned how to handle a pistol. But a year working the land was enough for Cohen, and he began wandering from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

He was a talker in a traveling circus, peddled questionable goods, and plied his trade as a card sharp. Not surprisingly, he regularly got arrested and incarcerated for everything from gambling and pick pocketing to carnal knowledge of a girl under 16 for whom he was a pimp.

Robsart, Saskatchewan, ca. 1915 (Photo: John Asplund)

Becoming a Chinese legend

If it wasn’t for a fluke, Cohen would have been ignored by history. Cohen was a porky man who enjoyed Chinese food almost as much as he loved a shady hand of cards. One evening he walked into a Chinese restaurant-cum-late-night-gambling-den in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. There he stumbled right into the middle of an armed robbery.

“I saw it was a holdup,” he later recalled, “but I wasn’t heeled – that is, armed – and I had to be careful. I closed in till I was too near for him to use his rod and socked him on the jaw. The fellow was out for the count.”

Such an act was unheard of. Few white men ever came to the aid of a Chinese man in early 20th century Canada. As a Jew, though, Cohen felt an affinity for the Chinese underdog. He knew what it was like to be an outsider, someone who society shunned.

Cohen’s selfless act immediately won him the respect of the Chinese community. His new Chinese friends spotted him wagering money and soon asked him to join the Tongmenghui, the political organization of the revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen, which a few years later developed into the Guomindang. Cohen became a loyal member, learned of Sun’s teachings, regularly attended lodge meetings, started speaking at some of the get-togethers and gave generously from his gambling earnings to various funds.

Guomindang (Chinese National League) members and invited guests, 1918. From the Galt Museum and Archives, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

Yet even with his political awakening, Cohen continued to drift. He spent time in prison in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and missed Dr. Sun’s fundraising visit to Canada. Cohen eventually rambled to Edmonton, Alberta, made money in real estate and tended to the needs of the Chinese as a spokesman for the local expatriate community.


World War I and on to China

When the glory days of the real estate bubble burst just prior to World War I, Cohen did what many recently unemployed men did, he enlisted.

In Belgium he and his comrades in the 8th Battalion of the Canadian Railway Troops built train tracks to rush troops and supplies to the front, and he oversaw some of the Chinese Labour Corps. There he painfully lived through one of the war’s worst slaughters during the Battle of Passchendaele.

Acting Sergeant Morris Cohen (middle), ca. 1916. From the Collection of Victor D. Cooper

After the Armistice, Cohen became heavily involved with the Great War Veterans’ Association in Edmonton, and acted as a political advocate for his Chinese brothers.

Life, though, wasn’t the same after the war. The Canadian real estate market had not bounced back. Cohen felt unsettled, and wanted a change. So in 1922 he headed to Shanghai.

Once in town, he used his Guomindang connections and polished salesman ways to wrangle an interview with Dr. Sun and a job as a bodyguard to the leader and his wife, Soong Qingling.

As an aide-de-camp to Sun, Cohen quickly became one of the leader’s main protectors, and lived in Sun’s military compound when the Chinese leader returned to Canton.

Cohen’s business card, early 1920s (Public Record Office, Kew)

During this period in the 1920s, warlords had divided up the nation. While Sun Yat-sen was known and respected across China, he controlled little and desperately sought to consolidate his position in the south of China. He was a dreamer who believed that he could conquer the nation and establish a democratic society. In a small way, Cohen tried to assist his boss in making that dream a reality. He helped supervise the other bodyguards, trained the men to box, taught them how to shoot, all the while thwarting attempts on Sun’s life.

Cohen in a white suit at the dedication of the Whampoa Military Academy (on stage from left: Liao Zhongkai, Chiang Kai-shek, Sun Yat-sen, Soong Qingling), June 1924. From the Collection of Josef L. Rich

General Two-Gun

During one attack on Sun, a bullet nicked Cohen’s arm. The injury gave Cohen pause:

“The bullet that caught me in the left arm had made me think. Supposing it had been my right arm and I carried my gun that side, I’d not have been able to use it. As soon as we got back to Canton I got me a second gun, another Smith and Wesson revolver, and I packed it handy to my left hand. I practiced drawing and soon found that I was pretty well ambidextrous – one gun came out about as quick as the other.”

His fashionable two-gun accessories attracted attention amongst the western community already intrigued by this Jewish Englishman who cavorted with the Chinese. They started calling him “Two-Gun” Cohen. A nickname was born.

Alas, Sun died in 1925, never having realized his dream of unifying China. Cohen then worked for a series of leaders in Canton and Shanghai, from Sun Yat-sen’s son, the politician Sun Fo, to Sun Yat-sen’s brother-in-law, T.V. Soong. He also attached himself to various south Chinese warlords.

Cohen with the troops, July 1926. From the Collection of Josef L. Rich OBE

One of Cohen’s main jobs for his bosses was purchasing weapons. He was all over the place, visiting North America, South Africa and Southeast Asia, buying Lewis guns from England, Mausers from Germany, Zephy machine guns from Czechoslovakia and gunboats from Hong Kong.

He was promoted to the rank of Major General in 1935, and by then had become a regular fixture in the night life of Shanghai and Hong Kong, throwing banquets and squandering much of his earnings.

“His parents believe he is the real president of the country…” This quote and photo of Cohen appeared in a feature about him published in the B’nai B’rith Messenger⁩⁩, 6 May 1932. Available via the NLI Digital Collection

Socialite and spy

Cohen also passed time at the Hong Kong Jewish Club, whiling away the time playing poker with friends and showing magic tricks to children. The New Yorker writer Emily Hahn had become friends with Cohen, and especially remembered that

“He was like a character out of a book. He was like something somebody wrote.”

With the start of World War II, Cohen was involved in arms buying and surveillance work to combat the invading Japanese army, and did work for British Intelligence’s Special Operations Executive.

As the war spread in Europe, Jewish refugees streamed to Shanghai, one of the few places that did not require a visa to enter. With the Japanese controlling the surrounding territory, the city’s International Settlement had become a hostage community, and the Japanese forces anxiously waited to enter.

German, Austrian and Polish Jews inundated the city. In February 1939, 2,500 new Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai. By the end of year the number had reached 17,000. Most needed assistance. Shanghai’s modest Jewish relief organizations could not cope with the influx of so many people, and the U.S. State Department wanted to process those heading for the United States.

Haggadah printed and used in Shanghai, 1943. From the National Library of Israel collection

Hoping to smooth out the procedures, the State Department pressured the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to start sending money for relief. The J.D.C. also dispatched the American social worker Laura Margolis to investigate and reorganize the refugee relief efforts.

Margolis landed in Hong Kong in May 1941. She spent a week in the colony as she tried to secure a spot on a Dutch ship heading north. With time on her hands, she visited the offices of the Far East Rice Bowl Dinner Campaign.

“When I got back to the hotel I found an invitation to dinner – at the home of Mrs. Sun Yat-sen. I would be picked up in the evening by a General Cohen,” she said of the unexpected arrangements. “He picked me up and we got to her home for dinner. It was a delightful evening, with both foreigners and Chinese.”

Margolis was to see more of Soong and Cohen:

“General Cohen and I became very good friends. He took me all over and became my Hong Kong escort.”

Similarly, when Ernest Hemingway and his wife, the correspondent Martha Gelhorn, came to China to report on the growing war, Cohen also showed them around.

Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway in Chongqing, China, 1941. From the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Cohen was in Hong Kong in December 1941 when the Japanese attacked, and escorted Madame Soong along with her sister Ailing – the wife of H.H. Kung – to one of the last planes out of the colony.

“I took the two sisters across to the mainland and saw them off,” said Cohen of that long evening.

“It was a pretty grim farewell. We all knew that it was likely to be our last. For once I found myself absolutely tongue-tied. I couldn’t think what the hell to say. We shook hands, and I just blurted out, ‘We’ll fight to the bitter end, anyway.’”

Madame Soong stopped on the ramp and gazed down at him. “We’ll fight too, Morris,” she told him, “but not to the bitter end. The end, when it comes, will be sweet!”

Cohen with Soong Qingling, 1950s. From the Collection of Victor D. Cooper

The Japanese quickly captured the city, and interned thousands in prison compounds. Cohen was clapped into Stanley Prison Camp on an isthmus at the south end of the island. There his captors badly beat him, and he spent his time there trying to keep a relatively low profile.

False report of Cohen’s demise published in The Sentinel, March 19, 1942. Available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Between Canada and China

Cohen held Canadian citizenship, and in late 1943 the Japanese included him in a prisoner exchange with the Allies. He arrived in Montreal in December. The following summer he married Judith Clark – the owner of a high-end dress shop – at Temple Emanu-El.

Morris and Judith Cohen on their wedding day, June 18, 1944. From the Collection of Josef L. Rich OBE

This was when Cohen’s active Chinese career ended, but it was also the start of his myth-making as he exaggerated his position in China and desperately tried to reestablish his position in the country.

It was difficult.

Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek were battling for the soul of China, and there was no place for Cohen in the new political pot. Even so, his time with Sun and the reverence for the leader’s name guaranteed that he was always to be remembered as a loyal assistant to the father of modern China.

Cohen and Chiang Kai-shek, 1950s. From the Collection of Victor D. Cooper

Cohen’s link to Sun also gave him rare though limited access to both camps.

He spent about four months each year in China, mostly hanging out in Shanghai and Hong Kong, visiting old friends and speaking to anyone who would listen to his stories.

There were many stories.

The book Two-Gun Cohen helped cultivate the myths surrounding Cohen’s life and exploits. From the National Library of Israel collection

Zionist and Jewish activism

Besides his work for the Zionists at the 1945 United Nations conference in San Francisco, Cohen assisted a Shanghai Zionist group formulate plans to bomb British sites in the event that the British did not pull out of Palestine, and in the late 1940s aided a number of Jewish Shanghailanders win their freedom after they were kidnapped by unruly Chinese troops.

In 1947 the United Nations approved the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

The Arabs opposed the plan, and further fighting erupted between the Arabs and the Jews. Fearing that the surrounding Arab nations would attack once the British left in 1948, many Canadian Jews bought rifles, machine guns, mortars, airplanes and other war surplus for shipment to Jewish Palestine.

They packed the cargoes in crates marked “machine tools” and sent them via front organizations to the Middle East.

Sydney Shulemson, the most highly-decorated Canadian Jew to fight in World War II, actively worked to round up troops and weapons for Palestine. In November, he heard that China had purchased 200 De Havilland Mosquito bombers from Canada. The legendary plywood and balsa “Mozzie” had a resilient fuselage and a Rolls-Royce engine, which made it so fast and maneuverable that the aircraft distinguished itself in its sorties against shipping and V1 flying bombs.

De Havilland Mosquitos

According to Shulemson:

“The Canadian government had a large number of them at the end of World War II… I remember reading that these had all been test flown, reconditioned and then disassembled, crated and shipped to China. It occurred to me that I had never heard that China had ever used them. I wondered whether it might be possible to acquire these for Israel. That could have comprised the whole air force.”

Shulemson met with Cohen, who called the Chinese Ambassador in Ottawa. When Cohen hung up the phone, he asked Shulemson, “Do you like Chinese food?” Shulemson said yes, and Cohen then told him, “Well we are having lunch with the Chinese ambassador in Ottawa tomorrow.”

Despite their efforts, nothing came of the plane deal. The Chinese government was too corrupt to be bothered.

“Eventually General Cohen told me not to pursue it. The planes had never been uncrated, but they could not be sold. Apparently the people who arranged the exchange were more interested in exchanging Chinese currency for Canadian currency.”


Back to England

Unfortunately, Cohen’s long periods away from Montreal took a toll on his marriage to Judith. By the time of his divorce in 1956, he had moved in with one of his sisters in Manchester.

Cohen in Manchester, England, 1966. From the Cohen Family Collection

Cohen’s last visit to China was in 1966 as a guest of Premier Zhou Enlai for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Sun.

His battles finally ended on an autumn day in 1970. The man who during his lifetime was reported killed numerous times died peacefully in England, surrounded by two of his sisters, but far from his adopted home and his Chinese comrades. Relatives, acquaintances, and the press attended the Jewish funeral service the following day.

The funeral marked one of the few public occasions where Communist Chinese and Nationalist Taiwanese officials appeared together in public.

Even if these countrymen refused to accept each other’s existence as they stood side by side above Cohen’s grave, his old allies could not ignore their western brother.

Dr. Sun’s wife, Soong Qingling, could not forget Cohen either. Upon being contacted by his family, she sent a Chinese inscription to be carved alongside the English and Hebrew markings on his black granite tombstone. A final tribute to her faithful protector and friend.

Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen’s tombstone, Manchester, England (Photo: Daniel S. Levy)

Daniel S. Levy is the author of Two-Gun Cohen: A Biography. In the fall of 2021, Oxford University Press will release his Manhattan Phoenix: The Great Fire of 1835 and the Emergence of Modern New York, which deals with that city’s transformation in the years leading up to the Civil War.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The Making of the Story “Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl”

A klezmer-infused children's book inspired by journeys to the Eastern Bloc and the Black Sea

From the cover of “Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl”, artwork by Emil Singer-Fuer

In 1981, I was slated to start law school, but those plans were upended after I attended a klezmer concert.

I was inspired to form a band instead, but I knew it had to be unique. I realized there had to be a lot more forgotten and unpublished klezmer melodies among the Holocaust survivors and Romani musicians who had played for Jews before the Holocaust.

So I bought a one-way ticket to what was then the Eastern Bloc. My first stop in Romania was Bucharest. After speaking to several Jewish informants, I quickly learned that if there were any Jewish and/or Romani musicians still playing klezmer music to be found, it would be in the northeastern province of Moldavia.

Moldavia, 1969 (Photo: Zusya Efron). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

It was in Iasi (the capital of the province) that I met Itzik “Cara” Svart, Romania’s leading scholar on anything to do with Romanian Jewish folklore (including klezmer music). We would meet either in his home or at the kosher kitchen (cantina, as they called it in Romanian).

I was the student asking question upon question and Itzik was the patient teacher. He told me how in his town of Podu Iloaiei, there had been no Jewish klezmer musicians, so they would hire klezmers from Iasi for all the Jewish weddings.

On Purim, however, local Roma were hired to accompany the Purimshpilers (Purim actors) from house to house.

Yale Strom with Itzik “Cara” Svart and his wife Cili, 1996 (Photo: Elizabeth Schwartz)

He also said that some of the Jewish musicians had even traveled as far as Constantinople before World War I, where they played for anyone who would pay to listen to them. He delivered all of this information in perfect English in between bites of his hot kosher lunch.

One day, Itzik introduced me to a Romani gentleman named Paul Babici, who, along with his father, played klezmer music on the alto saxophone with Jews before and after the Holocaust.

Paul Babici and Yale Strom playing together in the cantina in Iasi, 1985 (Photo: Brian Blue)

Babici told me in Yiddish about a Jewish man, Yehuda Schulman, in Piatra Neamt, who remembered many “Buhusher nigunim”, tunes according to the traditions of the Buhusher Hasidic court.

Schulman’s family had been Buhusher Hasidim, followers of the righteous sage Yitshak ben Shalom Yosef Friedman (1834-1896) and his successors.

I finished my research in Iasi, took a bus to Piatra Neamt and went straight to the synagogue, where someone told me that Yehuda attended Friday night services. As it was Thursday, I only had to wait one day.

Yehuda was extremely friendly and was more than happy to sing many Buhusher nigunim, which he had learned from his father and grandmother. We met several times, and on one occasion, he sang a nigun that was sung especially during the festival of Hanukkah.

Click for rare footage of a Hanukkah candle lighting celebration with the last Buhusher Rebbe, ca. 1990. The nigun taught by Yehuda Schulman can be heard at 0:41. From the National Library of Israel collection

He told me how in the mid-19th century, klezmers would travel to Constanta (a city on the coast of the Black Sea in what is now Romania) to play music, exchange tunes with other musicians – some of whom came from as far away as the Ottoman Empire – and buy goods that were not available at home, such as olive oil from the Land of Israel.

Some of their nigunim certainly had origins in these travels.

The Great Synagogue of Constanta (Photo: Moshe Kunes). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

These journeys to Constanta, characterized by the exchange of melodies and exotic wares including precious olive oil from the Land of Israel, stayed in my mind for years and would inspire my second children’s book.

My first children’s book, “The Wedding that Saved A Town”, was also based upon a kernel of Jewish history.

In certain parts of Eastern Europe (particularly Poland) there was a little-known practice of klezmer musicians being asked to play in a Jewish cemetery for two orphans who were getting married. This was done during cholera epidemics when all else failed to alleviate the plague and desperate rabbis resorted to this superstition. They called this in Yiddish a “shvartse khasene” – a black wedding.

Illustration by Jenya Prosmitsky from “The Wedding That Saved A Town”

“Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl,” my latest story based on those long-ago journeys to Constanta has recently come out, published by a wonderful small publisher I found, Olniansky Tekst Farlag in Lund, Sweden. They were established in 2010 to publish new Yiddish material for all ages.

This past spring, they got a lot of press as they published the first volume of Harry Potter in Yiddish by the renowned Yiddishist Arun Schaechter Viswanath to resounding success. The first edition sold out.

The illustrations for “Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl” were done by a wonderful Hungarian Jewish artist in Budapest, Emil Singer-Fuer. The book is in Yiddish (right to left) and in English (left to right).

My research over the years in Eastern Europe has resulted in books, documentary films, plays, recordings, photo exhibitions and oral histories, and I look forward to mining further in creating new art that celebrates Yiddish culture.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.