Manmade Climate Change 150 Years Ago? In Yiddish?!

1871 article: "Hardly anybody knows that war affects the weather strongly and causes heavy rain falls, strong winds, thunder and lightning.”

Original illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich appearing in the 1873 book Der französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

With the recent re-introduction of rabbis into the German army, I started to read about rabbis in the German army during the First World War and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the 150th anniversary of which is now being commemorated. As often happens in the course of research, serendipity led me to an unrelated and unexpected, yet fascinating find: an article on the environmental effects of war printed in a leading Yiddish newspaper during the Franco-Prussian War.

Kol Mevaser was published from its inception in 1862 until its discontinuation in 1872-73 in Odessa, an important Jewish center at the time. It was one of the very first newspapers in Yiddish and one of the most important in the history of Yiddish journalism.

Published in Odessa, Kol Mevaser was one of the first and most influential Yiddish newspapers

The National Library of Israel’s online Historical Jewish Press (JPress) collection includes Kol Mevaser, as well as a short historical survey about the periodical by Prof. Avraham Novershtern.

The orientation of the newspaper runs along the lines of the Haskala (Jewish enlightenment) movement, and the editors often aimed to educate their “plain folk” readership about events in the world or about modern science. While they often achieved these goals, to the modern reader, some of these attempts appear rather absurd.

On February 9, 1871 (January 28 according to the Julian calendar date indicated on the newspaper’s masthead), an article was published in Kol Mevaser entitled “The War and the Air”. In it, the author – identified only by the initials G.D.D – argues that during and after big battles there are often heavy rain falls, strong winds, thunder and lightning – as compared to the normal average.

Illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich, from the 1873 book Der französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

“All of this is no coincidence. The cause of it is the continuous shooting with big canons.”

In addition to the then-contemporary Franco-Prussian War, the author provides a list of recent conflicts after which such observations were made, including examples from the Italian War of 1859 and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866:

“In the year 1859, during the War in Italy, scientists have realized for the first time… this phenomenon has been noticed even more clearly in the year 1866 when Prussia was at war with Austria… every time there was heavy rain fall accompanied by winds and also thunder and lightning, as has been reported by the newspapers at the time.”

According to the article, the phenomenon is not limited to the immediate vicinity, but rather extends to a great geographical area, as well:

“After the battle of Königsgrätz, a heavy storm blew for eight days accompanied by heavy rain falls. Not only on the battlefield itself, but in the entire country, and even as far as deep into France.”

Illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich, from the 1873 book Der französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After the Battle of Solferino – the cruelty of which led Henry Dunant to establish the Red Cross – such weather phenomena were said to have affected all of Europe.

To some, the reported connection between war and weather was apparently as reliable as the sun:

“If we look at the present war between France and Prussia, we can notice this strange phenomenon even better… The moment they saw rain, the inhabitants of Alsace already knew it and said: ‘Most likely today there already was a big battle somewhere’ – and indeed it was this way.”

Illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich, from the 1873 book Der Französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The author bases his statements on “scientists” (נאטורפארשער in Yiddish, which translates more literally to “researchers of nature”), but does not name them.

The causal relationship is explained as follows: Rain is caused by the fact that shooting creates heat, which evaporates water, which then ascends and turns back into droplets once a cold northern wind crosses its way.

As to why the air cools down the evaporated water, the author gives a further explanation, though its relationship to the first one (the cold northern wind) is not clear: When shooting, the gun powder is broken up into its component parts which are dispersed into the air; ultimately this creates electricity, which somehow cools down the air.

Illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich, from the 1873 book Der französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The author’s thoughts then become even harder to follow, and it is probable that he had no real scientific knowledge of the topics about which he wrote:

“It is known that in a place where a big electrical force is concentrated, rain, thunder and lightning are created. That is how the wind, which appears during battles, develops. And when the evaporated water which is in the air is being cooled down and turns back into water, it takes up a larger volume, seventeen hundred times more than in its evaporated form. Therefore, when rain falls, it pushes aside the air. But the air returns and takes up its previous place from where the rain has dispelled it and it carries the clouds along with it. A quick movement is created in the air which we call “wind”. According to all of this we can name the battlefield ‘the machine which drags in the air’.”

Generally speaking, Kol Mevaser was a respectable newspaper, and while the thoughts expressed in this particular article appear naïve to the modern reader, they do in fact constitute an early awareness of the effects small man can have on the massive planet on which he lives.

Moreover, the article deals with two scourges that 21st century humanity continues to face – war and man’s role in global climate change.

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.

Additional reading on this topic in Hebrew can be found in the book Scientific God: Popular Science in Hebrew in Eastern Europe in the Second Half of the 19th Century – Between Knowledge and a New Image of the Universe, by Yaacov Shavit and Jehuda Reinhartz.

The Ghost Shtetl of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Youth

30 years after his death, the Nobel laureate's village is being rebuilt, including a massive replica of a synagogue that was never there

Isaac Bashevis Singer in his Nobel Prize ceremony tuxedo appears in front of the Wolpa Synagogue [Source: Photo by Israel Zamir, from the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at NLI / Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem]

In his 1978 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer employed memories from his earliest years as a source of hope for coping with the troubles of modern times:

“In our home and in many other homes the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper. In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation.”

As a teenager, in the midst of the First World War, Singer moved with his siblings and his mother to her hometown, the small shtetl of Biłgoraj, where they belonged to a prominent rabbinical family.

The main square in Biłgoraj around the time Singer lived there

Following a short stint in a Warsaw rabbinical seminary, a young Singer would return to the ancestral shtetl, where he would fail to support himself by giving Hebrew lessons – an interesting historical detail for the man destined become the first Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize.

Biłgoraj was home to a thriving, if modest, Jewish community, and would inspire many of Singer’s later works.

A rabbinic text printed in Biłgoraj, 1912. From the National Library of Israel collection

Nearly a century has passed since Singer left Biłgoraj for good. Other notable former residents included Rabbi Mordecai Rokeach of the Belz Hasidic Dynasty, who famously fled Europe for the Land of Israel in 1944, and the well-known writer and educator Shmuel Ben-Artzi, father-in-law of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The town has long been bereft of Jewish inhabitants, yet a replica shtetl now stands there, the brainchild of Tadeusz Kuźmiński, a businessman and philanthropist, who recently passed away.

Tadeusz Kuźmiński stands in front of the replica synagogue in Biłgoraj, 2016 (Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Kuźmiński dreamed of building a site that reflected the multicultural nature of pre-War Poland, which could also serve as a contemporary cultural, commercial and residential center. With the vision only partially realized, Biłgoraj is now home to a recreated Jewish marketplace, with plans ready for a second market square set to include replicas of wooden churches and a wooden mosque (of the type long-used by some descendants of Tatars in eastern Poland).

The new square in Biłgoraj, 2016 (Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber)

A small museum in Singer’s honor is housed in one of the replica town’s structures, yet the most striking feature of the modern reincarnation of Jewish Biłgoraj is Kuźmiński’s full-scale reproduction of the destroyed wooden synagogue of Wolpa (a town in modern-day Belarus) – some 400 km (250 miles) away.

Postcard featuring a ca. 1930 photo of the Wolpa Synagogue (Publisher: Tomy). 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
Prayer for the czar inside the Wolpa Synagogue (Photo: Alois Breyer). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Somewhat ironically, Wolpa was probably most well-known for the very synagogue now recreated in Biłgoraj.

Wood synagogues were quite common throughout Eastern Europe, and yet the Wolpa Synagogue was considered to be one of the finest examples, an aesthetic and technical masterpiece, which stood for well over two centuries – surviving one world war before being destroyed in the next.

Interior photo of the Wolpa Synagogue’s dome, ca. 1910-1913 (Photo: Alois Breyer). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After receiving his Nobel Prize, Singer addressed the distinguished guests at the subsequent banquet:

“People ask me often, ‘Why do you write in a dying language?’ And I want to explain it in a few words.

Firstly, I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The deader the language the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish and as far as I know, they all speak it.

Secondly, not only do I believe in ghosts, but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: “Is there any new Yiddish book to read?” For them Yiddish will not be dead.

Thirdly, for 2000 years Hebrew was considered a dead language. Suddenly it became strangely alive. What happened to Hebrew may also happen to Yiddish one day, (although I haven’t the slightest idea how this miracle can take place).

There is still a fourth minor reason for not forsaking Yiddish and this is: Yiddish may be a dying language but it is the only language I know well. Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead.”

Isaac Bashevis Singer preparing his speech before the official Nobel Prize ceremony, 1978 (Photo: Israel Zamir). From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Isaac Bashevis Singer passed away some two decades before Tadeusz Kuźmiński’s dream of a simulated pre-War Biłgoraj began to take shape.

What would Singer have thought or written about Kuźmiński’s renascent Biłgoraj?

Would he have seen humor in the idea of a replica shtetl with no Jews?

Or the notion of a once-iconic synagogue transported through space and time, plopped down in tiny Biłgoraj, steps away from a modest museum in his honor (despite the fact that he himself only lived there for a brief period)?

Is Kuźmiński’s Biłgoraj a living ghost? A mother that was never really dead?

Or – in the spirit of Singer’s childhood home – an attempt in post-Holocaust Poland to “find… happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation”?

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.

For more on the replica shtetl in Bilgoraj and other news, information and resources about Jewish monuments and heritage sites all over Europe, check out Jewish Heritage Europe.

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.