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