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.

Putting the J in Majorca

After hundreds of years underground, Jewish life on the Spanish island is reawakening

The once vibrant Jewish community of Majorca is now experiencing an historic renaissance (Photo: Dani Rotstein)

In November of 2014, I moved to Majorca, an island off of Spain, thinking I would never meet another Jewish person there.

Majorca is located in the Mediterranean Sea, off the eastern coast of Spain. This map shows the island as depicted by pioneering 16th century mapmaker Giovanni Francesco Camocio. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the National Library of Israel

I was quickly proven wrong when I found out about a volunteer-led synagogue with a small group of followers on the island. As I sat at one of the services, I learned that not everyone there was Jewish.

In fact, there’s a group of people on the island known as “Chuetas” who identify as Catholic yet quietly preserve the light of a Jewish community nearly forgotten. The Chuetas are descendants of Majorca’s once thriving medieval Jewish community, and some feel connected to their Jewish ancestry to this day. This finding blew me away as I thought about how powerful Jewish history is: these people are resurrecting a nearly dissolved Jewish legacy from over 600 years ago!

A 15th century manuscript chronicling the 1286 Disputation of Majorca, a religious dispute between a Christian merchant and a number of Jews. From the National Library of Israel collections

I was soon invited to attend once-a-month Shabbat dinners with a small group of Chuetas who had converted and/or returned to Judaism. I looked forward every month to spending time with them, learning from them, hearing their incredible family stories that were being left untold to the general public.

I brought my non-Jewish girlfriend at the time (now wife and mother of our son) who also began to express an interest in learning about Judaism, as I was expressing an interest in re-learning my own Judaism. You see, history and culture and what binds us together as a people with a collective shared past – that is what excites me, and who better to learn from then a group of people that were reconnecting to their ancestors’ faith from centuries ago!

Jews lived in Majorca for nearly a millennium before the persecutions of 1391 and the 1435 mass forced conversion, which took place in the Santa Eulalia Church, shown here (Photo: Sophia Kulich)

This spiritual and cultural discovery reminded me that for millennia, the Jewish people have overcome darkness. We have prevailed against those who sought to destroy us in each generation by carrying our beliefs, traditions, culture, and most importantly, our strong sense of peoplehood forward. In Pirkei Avot 1:14, Rabbi Hillel tells us: “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” implying that each one of us can carry the torch and lead our communities out of darkness.

And this flame can continue to glow when we are connected and dare to share the beauty of our people with the world around us.

Early on in life, I was raised with a strong sense of Jewish identity, though was never very observant. Growing up in New Jersey, USA, my parents sent me to a Jewish sleep-away summer camp where I befriended other Jews from around the country and learned the song “Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish.”

Dani Rotstein (Photo: Mark Edwards)

When I was 18 years old, I had a unique opportunity to live and learn in Israel, embarking on the Young Judea Year Course program.

There, I strengthened my relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. From learning Hebrew and being able to communicate with my Israeli grandparents, to training with the Israeli Air Force for a week, to living on a religious kibbutz, it was the best year of my life.

As I witnessed Jews from around the world come together in Israel, it opened my eyes to the value of our Jewish family—for myself, my friends, and the global community.

After returning to the United States and graduating college, I worked in film production in Miami and New York but was starting to feel the need for a change. I was missing that same sense of fulfillment I experienced in Israel. It wasn’t until I moved to Majorca five years ago that I found my purpose in the Jewish community.


The historic Jewish Quarter in Palma, Majorca (Photo: Dani Rotstein)

So I became more involved, determined to instill the passion for Jewish life around the island. I started by hosting challah baking workshops and Purim parties, and from there, the excitement spread to others.

Our numbers kept increasing, and we became a tighter knit community. In fact, we are now up to 60-70 attendees at our Shabbat dinners.

My wife and I founded Limud Mallorca – a Jewish cultural association intent on bringing Jewish culture and life to disconnected Jews living on the island, families of mixed-marriages, and those non-Jews interested in learning about and connecting with Jewish values and history.

We organized multiple trilingual learning conferences – in English, Spanish, and Mallorquin (a dialect of Catalan that is spoken on the island). We are a volunteer-run organization that is now working with the City Hall and organizing cultural activities and social events – documentary screenings, book presentations, choir concerts, lectures, seminars, holiday celebrations and community Shabbat dinners at different vegetarian restaurants around the island. Last year the Department of Education asked us to visit different public schools and conduct workshops centered on Holocaust education.

The first public Rosh Hashana celebration in Majorca, organized by Limud Mallorca in conjunction with the City Hall, 2019 (Photo: Felipe Wolokita)

Our first educational Jewish learning conference was in May 2018 and we expected around 20 or 30 people, but we ended up with over 85 attendees from around the world! The following year we had over 150 attendees.

Soon after our first event, the president of the local synagogue decided to resign and nobody wanted to fill his shoes. I decided to step up to the task and was elected to sit on the synagogue Board of Directors.

Along with me were three Jews by choice, two of whom were Chuetas. This was the first time in over 600 years that Mallorquin natives with Jewish ancestry were once again a part of the leadership of the local Jewish community, as the synagogue had been started in the 1970s by British Ashkenazim who had retired and moved to the island. Ever since, the community had been lead by Jewish expats or Spanish nationals from outside the Balearic Islands.

A Hanukkah celebration at the synagogue in Majorca (Photo: Mark Edwards)

In August 2018, not only was the new board elected but two Chuetas traveled to Israel to be married under a chuppa (traditional Jewish wedding canopy) – apparently the first wedding between two Chuetas in Israeli history.

The other event worthy of noting was the inauguration of a memorial to the Crypto-Jews that were burned at the stake in 1691 in Plaza Gomila. A memorial had been under petition for at least 40 years prior and finally manifested itself in the very same month as the wedding in Israel and the new board assuming its role.

Memorial in Plaza Gomila to the Crypto-Jews burned at the stake in 1691 (Photo: Carla Rotstein)

We are living through watershed moments within Mallorquin Jewish history.

After volunteering with the synagogue and Limud Mallorca, I finally decided to make the final leap of faith – to leave my work as a TV commercial producer and open up an educational tourism company called Jewish Majorca, with the goal of offering an interactive learning experience that engages both visitors and residents alike and sparks further curiosity.

A Jewish Majorca tour group admiring a statue of Jafuda ben Cresques, the famous 14th century Jewish Mallorquin cartographer (Photo: Gabrielle Weiniger)

We opened up in May 2019 and had a wonderful first summer, followed by bookings for a 400-person Kosher-for-Passover holiday in 2020, along with multiple bar mitzvah cruise trips and Jewish destination weddings planned.

All of this was stopped in its tracks due to the arrival of “Señor COVID,” yet instead of shutting down operations and giving up our dream, we decided to adapt and innovate.

We now offer virtual Zoom tours to different communities around the world, as well as a stand-alone Video Virtual Tour. The fact that international tourism has been temporarily shut down has actually encouraged us to do what we have always been wanting to do – go online and share the Jewish, Converso, and Chueta history of Majorca with the global audience.

Jewish Majorca also connected with Jewish tour guides and community members around the world in an effort to tell other Diaspora community stories, as well, with the “Chanuka 2020 Around the World in 8 Days” virtual program.

Announcement about a virtual trilingual Limud Mallorca event

Throughout my life I have been blessed to witness the beauty of Jewish life and the immense power of a connected community, whether in New York City or in Israel.

And now, on the tiny island of Majorca, I hope to continue sharing that light with others, showing that anyone can come together and live in harmony. My experience in Majorca shows how the spirit of the Jewish people lives on in each one of us. Together, we can help reignite the flames of Majorca’s Jewish community and unite the global Jewish community.


For more information on Jewish Majorca visit: or email: [email protected].

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.

Hannah Senesh: The Girl Who Never Stopped Writing

A glimpse of Hannah Senesh’s childhood writings


Hannah Senesh and her brother Giora as children, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Hannah Senesh was born into a home where writing was an integral part of family life. Her father, Béla, was a well-known journalist, playwright and children’s author in Hungary. His books sold well and his plays were very popular in Budapest—but his short career ended abruptly with his sudden death from a heart attack at the age of thirty-three. Hannah (nicknamed Anikó) was then only six years old.

Hannah Senesh with her brother Giora, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

It soon became apparent that little Anikó had also been bitten by the writing bug. In November 2020, the Senesh (often spelled Szenes) family decided to deposit the entire Hannah Senesh Collection with the National Library. It includes dozens of items gathered throughout Senesh’s all too brief life. A number of these rare items document the very beginning of this creative girl’s journey.

Hannah Senesh with her brother Giora, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Senesh was “writing” even before she actually knew how. She dictated to her brother Giora (Györi) a greeting for her grandmother and mother. When she started composing poems in her head—at the age of six!—Grandma Fini made sure to write them all down by hand in a notebook she kept just for that purpose.

A note Hannah dictated before she knew how to write. It reads, “Dear Mother and Grandma Fini, Because today is my birthday I received writing paper, chocolate, flowers, and a beautiful drawing from Györi. . . . In the afternoon, we went out in the carriage. I kiss your hands, Aniko.” From the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen


A drawing and greeting for Grandma Fini, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen


The notebook of poems by Hannah Senesh, collected by her grandmother, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Shortly after, Hannah, still a child of 7 or 8 years old, tried her hand at a career similar to her father’s. She felt that the Senesh family needed its own newspaper, and she would be the editor-in-chief! Thus came into being the family newspaper she called Kis Szenesek Lapja (“The Little Seneshes’ Newspaper”).

Illustrated cover of “The Little Seneshes’ Newspaper”, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

For several months in 1929, Anikó edited her own little newspaper. At the top of each issue was the date, just like in any proper paper. Hannah typed everything on the home typewriter. She wrote the articles, chose the poems and stories and drew the illustrations for the enjoyment of the whole family. She even attempted to write an entire play. This newspaper will also soon be available for viewing at the National Library of Israel.

Hannah Senesh and her brother Giora, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

The complete Hanna Senesh Collection reveals the creative roots of the person who would come to be remembered in Israeli and Jewish collective memory mainly as a brave paratrooper. She began creating even before she could write. Her early work is in Hungarian, but soon after arriving in Mandatory Palestine, she very quickly gained command of the Hebrew language and continued writing in Hebrew as well. Hannah Senesh remained a writer throughout her life, from her early childhood to her very last days in a Hungarian prison.


The materials above are part of the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Four Fateful Weeks in the Life of Sigmund Becker

From medical school to the battlefield, he wound up in Siberia and China before America

Taken as a POW to Siberia, Becker would settle in China before ultimately moving with his family to the United States. Image: Becker's Chinese ID, 1922

I never met my paternal grandfather, Sigmund Becker, who died a few years before I was born, never having fulfilled the great promise of a bright medical career that slipped through his fingers during three fateful weeks in 1914.

In his memoir, Making Do (Z4 Editions, 2017), my father, Johnny Becker (born Meyer John Becker), described my grandfather as “vocationally and intellectually dislocated.” He said that my grandfather was the “’Wunderkind’ of his European village,” who “would pay dearly for the rest of his life” for enlisting in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I.

This description of my grandfather had always intrigued me. Over the years, I have been able to fill in some of the pieces of the puzzle that defined my grandfather’s life and to better understand his aspirations and frustrations, as well as the calamitous world events he miraculously navigated.


Uszer, Zisha and Sigmund

The oldest of six children, my grandfather was born on December 30, 1890, as Uszer (a Yiddish variant of Asher) Zusie Becker. His family called him by the more endearing Yiddish diminutive Zisha, and later in life, he adopted the name Sigmund. He grew up under relatively comfortable conditions in the small village of Kopyczyńce (present-day Kopychintsy, Ukraine), outside Tarnopol (now Ternopil, Ukraine).

Tarnopol, early 19th century. 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

His father, Meyer, a sought-after estate overseer, managed the large agricultural estates of wealthy noblemen and resided with his family on whatever estate he was managing at the time. Depending on the contract, he could manage an estate for up to 10 years or more.

My grandfather was an excellent student. He attended gymnasium in Lemberg, followed by medical school at the University of Lemberg, where he studied from about 1908 to 1914. While two of his younger siblings immigrated to America in 1913, my grandfather was nearing the end of his medical studies at that time, with a very promising future just around the corner.

The Jewish hospital in Lemberg, ca. 1917. 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 grandfather interrupted his studies in order to enlist in the military as a medical officer. By volunteering, he would have only had to serve for one year, rather than be conscripted for three—he had no idea, of course, that that one year was about to turn into four catastrophic years.

The Becker family had enjoyed a relatively idyllic life in a liberal, multi-ethnic Austrian society.

However, all this would change dramatically in early August 1914. On July 28, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war, one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne.

All existing military units were immediately mobilized. Although my grandfather’s unit had probably not even completed training yet, they were likely shipped out to a garrison town near the Russian border.


Becoming Refugees

Never expecting the new war to be literally at their doorstep, the Becker family woke up one morning during the first week of August 1914 to find soldiers hiding behind bundles of wheat and shooting at one another.

Both armies had infiltrated in the middle of the night and had taken up their respective positions.

An Austrian soldier warned the family to go into the cellar as it was dangerous to stay in the house. According to a cousin who described the scene to me 61 years later, as they were heading into the cellar, a shell exploded on the steps, tearing off their clothes and leaving most of the women deaf for a week.

Fighting continued during the day, but not at night. After three days, an officer advised the family to leave the estate because it was going to be a long and bloody battle. Before leaving, they encountered a Cossack who demanded to know where they hid their gold and silver. When my great-grandfather, Meyer, refused to answer, one of the Cossacks struck him in the stomach with a shovel.

Given the ensuing dislocation and chaos of the war, his injury was never properly treated and likely festered, ultimately contributing to his death in 1922.

With only a few hours to pack, the family abandoned their house and their possessions. In a matter of hours, they had become refugees, escaping along with the retreating Austro-Hungarian army. Moving on foot, by horse, and by wagon, the family passed many dead bodies on the side of the road.

Refugees in Brassó, Austria-Hungary, August 1916 (Public Domain)

Each time my great-grandmother, Clara, saw a corpse, she frantically ran up to it, crying and swearing it was her son Zisha.

The Beckers didn’t know that the Russian avalanche had begun to thunder down onto the plains of Galicia, first taking small farms, estates, and surrounding villages. On August 16th, Russian soldiers led by General Brusilov entered Tarnopol, which was the first city to be captured by Russia during the Great War. From Tarnopol, Russian troops led by General Russky kept steamrolling westward toward Lemberg, eventually crushing the Austro-Hungarian army and capturing the capital city of Galicia on September 11th.

Week after week, the Beckers retreated with the Austro-Hungarian army, suffering from hunger, thirst, and lice along the way. During their trek, my great-grandmother had a stroke, resulting in partial paralysis and causing her to be disabled for the rest of her life.

The family eventually made it to a refugee camp in Kapuvár, a small town in Hungary. They remained there for the next four years, until November 1918. Since the camps tended to be ethnically homogeneous, their camp in Kapuvár housed Jewish refugees. Overall, two million Austro-Hungarian civilians were displaced during the war. Although the camps were strictly segregated from the civilian population, refugees were still able to earn money.

The refugee camp in Kapuvár was an overnight’s drive from Vienna, where my great-grandmother’s nephews lived, including a lawyer and an accountant. As the war progressed, there were severe food shortages in Vienna.

In an ironic twist, some of the Becker refugees would smuggle in flour and chicken to their more well-to-do relatives. For example, my grandfather’s youngest sister, Rosa, who was only 15 at the time, would wear a corset with food hidden inside as she traveled by train to Vienna. She would then return to the camp with items from our relatives.


From Officer to POW

While his family was escaping the Russian onslaught, my grandfather was thrust into a living hell in a world of gruesome battle, death and destruction.

As a medical officer, he would have been assigned to the battlefield dressing station, which was still in the line of fire. Stretcher bearers would bravely run to the wounded, load them onto a stretcher, and race to the closest dressing station. The stations were divided into two sections, one for the slightly wounded and the other for the severely wounded.

A World War I field hospital. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel

My grandfather’s military medical training likely did not prepare him for the sheer magnitude of industrial killing taking place all around him. Unlike the Austro-Hungarian army, which was high on spirit and bravado, but short on modern weapons, the Russians were well armed, with machine guns that could mow down advancing soldiers in a matter of minutes.

Destroyed and disfigured bodies were everywhere, and the overwhelmed dressing stations were not prepared to properly treat the ghastly physical wounds that could only be inflicted on a body by machine guns.

Injured soldiers during World War I. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel

After four weeks of combat my grandfather’s regiment surrendered in Rzeszow.

During the critical first three and half weeks of the war, Austria-Hungary lost one- third of its army. Total Austrian losses were 220,000 wounded, 100,000 captured, and 100,000 killed.

The Austrian army ceased for the moment to be an effective fighting force.

Sigmund’s world and his future was irreparably shattered. However, by being captured, he was at least taken off the battlefield and out of harm’s way.

His new life as a POW then began.

It took more than a month to transport his unit over a thousand miles from the Russian border to the Kostroma POW camp, which was three hundred miles north of Moscow. POWs had to walk for days to arrive at the closest rail line, where they were loaded into cattle cars with no more than a hot stove in the middle of each car.

The stench of the sweaty, unwashed soldiers, with no proper bathroom facilities, must have been unbearable.

By mid-October, my grandfather arrived in Kostroma, which was a holding facility from where prisoners were sent out to other, more remote locations. During the prisoner intake, my grandfather was deemed useful to the Russians for his medical background, at a time when Russian doctors were in short supply because of the war.

Kostroma train station, early 20th century

After successfully saving the leg of a young Russian soldier, my grandfather so impressed a Russian doctor that he was removed from the camp and permitted to stay temporarily in the doctor’s home, while tending to the medical needs of the local villages.

As the war progressed and more and more Austro-Hungarian POWs were captured, Russia decided to ship them to various parts of Siberia until the war ended. My grandfather was sent over 5,000 miles (ca. 8,000 kilometers) away by train to a newly constructed POW camp in Nikolsk-Ussuriysky, a growing town specializing in agricultural products, located about 60 miles north of Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan.

After the October Revolution of 1917, the town experienced rapid growth. It was at this time that the Gourevitch family from Cherkassy, Russia, moved to town after having escaped the revolution. My grandfather met the family, including 17-year-old Vera, while he was handling the medical needs in Nikolsk-Ussuriysky.

After Russia decided to withdraw from the war in 1918, my grandfather and Vera quickly became engaged. Normal military authority broke down, and my grandfather simply walked away and stayed with the Gourevitch family.

Joint Distribution Committee Siberian Jewish prisoner’s card for Sigmund Ascher Becker, indicating that he was captured on September 13th, 1914 in Rzeszow

Two years later, in 1920, Sigmund and Vera — my grandparents — were married in Vladivostok.

My grandmother’s father, Samuel, was a combination businessman/inventor and a violin player. He had developed innovative ways to extract oil from plants and served as an adviser in the agricultural industry. His oldest son, David, was an entrepreneur, and together, they moved the family to Harbin, China.

Harbin had a large Russian Jewish population at the time, in part because it offered refuge from the war and the revolution. My grandfather joined my grandmother’s family in the grain business in Harbin, even though he still hoped to one day return to medicine.


Different Routes to America

Since the war was officially over in November 1918, the Becker family’s four years in the Kapuvár refugee camp came to an end. The Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer existed, and Austria began sending Russian POWs back to Russia in boxcars.

With Galicia being returned to Poland, the Beckers were no longer considered Austrian citizens and were transported back to their village of Kopyczyńce in the same boxcars as the Russian prisoners.

Still suffering from his stomach wound and no longer able to resume his career as an overseer, my great-grandfather, Meyer, could barely make ends meet for his family, even with the support of Jewish charity.

In addition, living a few miles from the Russian border, the Beckers became caught up in the tide of advancing and retreating armies again for nearly three years as a result of two more back-to-back wars.

From 1918 to 1919, Poland fought the West Ukrainian National Republic, and from 1919 to 1921, Poland fought Bolshevik Russia. In 1920, after the retreat of the Bolsheviks, units of the Ukrainian Peltura army raided Kopyczyńce and tormented the Jews. Women were raped, 14 Jews were wounded, and a few Jews were murdered.

The Beckers feared for their lives and sought to leave as soon as possible.

Desperate to immigrate to America, they finally received the necessary visa documents in late 1921, and their family in America sent an agent to Warsaw to bring them to the US.

Meyer died en route, but the others continued on to Warsaw, where, after three weeks, passports were purchased. From there, the family traveled to Cherbourg, France, and then sailed in third class on the ship Emperata, arriving at the immigration processing center at Ellis Island in New York in 1922. My great-grandmother, Clara, died that same year.

Back in Harbin, in June 1922, my grandparents welcomed their first-born son, my father, Meyer. At the same time, the family in America offered to provide financial help for my grandfather to complete his medical studies if he would move to the US.

Sigmund Ascher Becker’s Chinese identification document, 1922

As much as he enjoyed his new life in China— married, away from war, and no longer a POW— he was tempted by the offer. In August 1923, my grandparents and their young son left China for Japan and then sailed from Yokohama on the SS President Jackson, arriving in Seattle, Washington, on September 1st, 1923. From there, they took the train to New York.

Their arrival at this time was significant because the following year, the US passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which instituted restrictive immigration quotas. Although my grandfather never got to see his parents again, he was finally reunited with most of his family after nine years of being apart.

Needing to support his wife and son, he went to work for an insurance company. Since he was multilingual, he was able to serve German, Polish, and Russian clients. After several years, he opened his own insurance company.

His plan was to save enough money to continue his medical studies, but circumstances forced him to delay and then, ultimately abandon that plan. In 1932, he suffered his first heart attack, causing him to lose his business and limiting his ability to support his family. He never fully recovered, and he experienced ill health for the rest of his life. With his dream of becoming a doctor irretrievably lost, my grandfather suffered periodic bouts of despondency until his early death in 1946.

From left: Sigmund, Charlie, Vera, and Meyer John Becker, with Vera’s brother, David Gourevitch (standing), who was visiting New York from China, 1930

However, this final sad chapter of his life paved the way for future generations, for had he been forced to return to Kopyczyńce, he would have ultimately been rounded up and exterminated by the Nazis, along with anyother family members who were there with him. Firsthand accounts indicate that there were only 20 Jewish survivors left in Kopyczyńce after the Holocaust.

Certainly, I would not be here to record his memory, but thankfully, from generation to generation, his family legacy lives on.


A version of this article first appeared as “My Grandfather’s Rendezvous with History” in the March 2020 edition of The Galitzianer, the quarterly journal of Gesher Galicia. It is the culmination of countless hours of detective work spanning more than 40 years of research, including taped interviews in 1972, obtaining scraps of family photos, letters, documents, reading countless WWI related books, and using the GesherGalicia and JewishGen’s archives.

It has been published here 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.

For more “Jewish Journeys”, check out our online exhibition launched in collaboration with AEPJ as part of European Days of Jewish Culture 2020.