EAST END OF LONDON PHOTO GALLERY & COMMENTARY
London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......
My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London
e.mail thoughts & memories to:
Morris (2 Gun) Cohen, a personal recollection
by his cousin Dr Cyril Sherer
Morris 'Two Gun'
I was eight years old in 1929 when I first heard his name. My mother
had been busy since morning, frying fish and making a large pile of
lattkes. I was curious to know why we were eating in the
“front” room on a weekday. Usually it was shabbesdik. I was
told “The Chinese General is coming”. I wasn’t sure what that meant.
I knew we weren’t Chinese, so something was different. I remember a
large man with a large head, and I remember being patted on the head
with a large hand. The fish and lattkes disappeared quickly.
Two years later he was back. This time I understood more. I was told
that my father’s cousin was a General in the Chinese Army, and that
he was thus a Very Important Person. I remember him sitting in the
front room talking on the telephone to someone he called “Sir John”,
confirming an order for hundreds of trucks for China, and he spoke
about millions of pounds.
His visit had been very secret. There were rumours that he had been
executed; perhaps the family sat shiva, (memorial observance)
though he was very much alive. He avoided publicity, but the
Press greeted him at Southampton and took pictures. Morris smashed
one man’s camera. He didn’t know my Dad tipped them off. Business
must have been bad.
Morris Abraham Cohen’s story begins in Radzenow in the province of
Miaczyn, Poland. He was born in 1887 and brought to England in 1889
which he later gave as his birth date for reasons to be seen. The
family lived in Umberston Street. His father, Yosef Leib was a
tailor. There were many siblings. Morris was a big child and soon
got into trouble. Enrolled at Jews Free School, he played truant. By
the time he was ten he was a petty thief, pickpocket, even a
prize-fighter under the name of “Cockney Cohen” which is where he
got his broken nose. He smashed windows in order to drum up business
for an itinerant glazier and before long was brought before the
Juvenile Court. when he claimed to be two years younger in order to
get a lighter sentence. He was sent to Hayes Industrial School, a
Jewish Borstal run by one Israel Ellis, something of a reformer. He
afterwards said it was the best thing that happened to him. He
stayed for five years. The curriculum was simple, including military
drill and discipline which was useful to him later on in China. He
also learned to recite long passages from Shakespeare, also useful.
Reformed or not he left there in 1905 to return to a family that
didn’t know what to do with him.
They decided to send him to Canada, to Yosef Leib’s friend from
Miaczyn, Abie Hyams, who had a farm in Saskatchewan. Morris left
with a trunk of clothes and five gold sovereigns to help him make
good. Abie didn’t want him and sent him to a neighbour, where he was
befriended by one Bobby Clark who helped Morris’ education, i.e he
taught him how to shoot a pistol with either hand, also how to deal
cards from anywhere except the top. Morris was a good pupil.
The story is told in our family that Yosef Leib had a large map of
Canada in his tailoring workshop. When his friends asked where was
Moishe, he would put his large hand on the map, covering several
thousands of square miles, and say in Yiddish “Dorten ist Moishe”.
(Here is where Moishe lives)
He spent the next few years as a gambler (inter alia) which
was how he made his first contact with the Chinese, of whom there
were tens of thousands working as cheap labour building the
railways. He usually, though not always kept clear of the police.
In an unforeseen opportunity he came to the rescue of a Chinese man
who was being mugged, a very unusual thing for a white man to do.
His name spread throughout the Chinese community in Edmonton, so
much so that he became an arbitrator for disputes, and was enrolled
as a Commissioner for Oaths for the Chinese labourers. His name
reached Dr Sun Yat Sen, leader of the Chinese Revolutionary
Movement, and later the First President of China who was in Canada
to raise funds for his revolutionary movement. According to his own
story Morris was taken on as a bodyguard for Sun and purchaser of
armaments for the revolutionaries in China. There had even been a
rumour that the man he rescued was Dr Sun himself. Even if it not
true, and it might have been, it didn’t do Morris‘ reputation any
Sun returned to China and Morris became a real estate salesman in a
land boom in Western Canada. Having made good and acquired legally
what was then a small fortune, he went to England to see his family,
bought them a new house in Tredegar Square in Bow and returned to
Canada, staying in various businesses (some legal) until World War
One broke out when he became Sergeant Cohen in the Canadian
As luck would have it, China entered the war, her contribution being
thousands of coolies sent to France to build railways! Morris said
he knew a little Chinese, which was more than anyone else, and he
spent the war in charge of the coolies, increasing his Chinese
connections. On one occasion he went
AWOL, lost his sergeant’s stripes and pay, and returned to his
real estate business in Canada.
The boom had ended. Morris returned to his real estate office but
spent the next two years doing the occasional deal, but mostly
playing poker. He was usually one step ahead of the law. Meantime he
kept in close contact with the local Chinese community in Edmonton,
whom he represented in their dealings with the authorities. He
became a member of Dr Sun’s party, also a member of a Tong, in both
cases the only non-Chinese to do so. A tong is something between a
fraternity and a secret society. He stayed in touch with Dr Sun,
waiting for an opportunity.
This came in 1922, when the Northern Construction Company, which
wanted to build a railway in China, needed a contact man. Morris fit
the bill perfectly and he sailed for China that year. He soon made
contact with Sun, and was engaged as his bodyguard (what we would
nowadays call “security”. The railway deal didn’t come off but
Morris was now an official in China. He was given the rank of
Colonel, and trained Sun’s bodyguards in every way he knew.
He was involved in setting up the first Military Academy in China at
a place called Whampoa. A picture exists of Morris in a white
tropical suit and hat, towering over a hundred or so cadets. It was
about this time that he first met Chou en Lai, later Mao Zedung’s
Foreign Minister. Morris was later instrumental in getting rid of
the Russian Communist emissary, Michael Borodin Gruzenberg, whom he
didn’t trust. Reputedly they spoke in Yiddish.
Morris’ great period in China lasted all through the 1930’s and
early 1940’s. Despite his rough background he was intensely loyal
to Sun, whom he regarded as a father figure. His honesty, loyalty
and integrity might have surprised those who knew his earlier life.
He carried out many delicate missions for Sun, and after his death
in 1925 for Chiang Kai Shek. Sun’s wife Quinling, one of the three
famous Soong sisters was his close friend for the rest of his life.
The women, whose father started life as a Protestant Missionary,
were educated in America. Another was the wife of Chiang, the third
the wife of the richest man in China. Their brother T.V.Soong was
very influential in government and a long-time associate of Morris.
There were always rumours about Morris and Mme Sun, which I believe
were completely untrue. Morris looked on Dr Sun as a father. He
said he only cried twice in his life, once when his own father died
and once for Dr Sun. Any relationship with his widow would have been
incestuous in his eyes.
In the 1930’s he became a purchasing agent for armaments for China.
He was promoted to the rank of General in 1935 . Morris had a sense
of mischief. His code-name in these deals was “Miaczyn,. the
village in Poland where he was born. He earned 4-5% on each deal but
he was never able to keep any money. He gave legendary parties in
Canton and Shanghai. His hostess was a beautiful Chinese actress
named Butterfly Wu. Mme Sun always asked him why he didn’t marry a
nice Chinese girl: his answer always was the same, he wouldn’t marry
a bad Chinese girl, and a good one wouldn’t marry him. He did marry
a Jewish woman later on in life.
Morris was in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded in 1941. They
especially wanted to capture him after he had exposed their
possession of poison gas in Manchuria in 1936. He might have
escaped, but he stayed behind to take care of Mme Sun. He was
interned in Stanley Camp where he was badly beaten. He was
repatriated to Canada in 1942, having lost seventy pounds in weight.
He visited England more frequently to see his family. He always came
loaded with presents; things which were unavailable in post-war
England, nylon stockings, cigarettes, cigars, whiskey, chocolates.
I met him frequently in 1945 in my parent’s home in Manchester
where I was a Resident at one of the hospitals. My father was his
favourite cousin and my mother a good cook. Morris loved to eat. He
was also very generous in talking about China. He had married,
meantime, to an attractive Jewish woman in Montreal, Judith Clarke,
but the marriage didn’t last long. Judith said she didn’t realize
she was marrying China. Morris was never home.
He was summoned to the San Francisco Conference in 1945 which led
to the founding of the UN. A Jewish delegation led by Rabbi Dr
Israel Goldstein (later a patient of mine in Jerusalem) was present
to ensure that Jewish interests in Palestine were not overlooked. A
vital point had been reached in the discussions where the vote of
the Chinese Ambassador was critical. Goldstein remembered meeting
Morris in Montreal. Maybe his memory was jogged by Sam Bronfman,
also in the delegation. Goldstein was skeptical but made the call.
It was sometimes difficult to accept all that was said about
Morris’s influence, but he called anyway.
When Morris arrived he was greeted and warmly embraced by the
Chinese Ambassador Dr Wellington Koo, and the two most powerful
financial figures in China, T.V.Soong and H.H.Kung (the brother of
Mme Sun Yat Sen and Mme Chiang Kai Shek. Goldstein was amazed and
convinced. Morris was immediately briefed by the Jewish delegation.
He went to the Head of the Chinese Delegation, General Wu, right
away and produced from his coat pocket, like a rabbit from a hat the
newspaper article Dr Sun written in 1924 supporting the Zionist
movement. He showed this to Wu, whom he knew in China, and who
needless to say voted in favour of article 80, which was relevant to
the Yishuv in Palestine at the matter.
There must be many more incidents like this which neither I nor
anyone else knows about.
But fast forward to Israel, where we had immigrated in 1961 from New
Zealand. I had been a doctor in their army in occupied in Japan from
1946-1948 (that’s another story in itself). I became a New Zealand
citizen and was in practice in Auckland till we left for Israel. I
have lived in Jerusalem ever since.
My only contact with Morris in those years was in 1955 when he sent
me a copy of the autobiography he had written with Charles Drage, a
British Naval officer he had known in China. He signed it and
stamped it with his name in Chinese, “Ma Kun”, this being the
nearest thing to Morris Cohen in Mandarin.
Then one day in 1966 the phone rang. A very English voice said “Is
this Dr Sherah? (mispronouncing my name) Dr Cyril Sherah?. I said I
was he, and then the voice said “Are you related to General Morris
Cohen?” When I said I was, I heard Morris’ familiar growl, saying
“Hiya Cyril, how are ya?” I didn’t know why he was in Israel, but I
invited him to lunch next day. He was still the same old Morris,
smartly dressed, good humoured, dominating the room with his
presence. He was accompanied by two men from the Israeli Foreign
Ministry, plus the owner of the English Voice, who promptly fell
asleep. The three of them had been driving him round the country and
they were all exhausted. Except Morris.
What was he doing here? Out of nowhere? Which was his usual style.
He hated publicity.
It seems that he was sent for by Ben Gurion, then living in Sde
Boker. BG knew him from 1946 when as the head of the Jewish Agency,
he was trying to promote business with the Dead Sea Potash works,
selling Phosphates to China. Morris had stayed at the King David
Hotel. The deal didn’t come off. But BG remembered him.
We were having trouble at the time with terrorists (called
Fedayeen in those days). They dropped plastic button mines near
schools especially in the Haifa area. The mines were made in China.
Kids picked them up or stepped on them and lost an arm or a leg.
The mines were very hard to detect. BG wondered if Morris could do
something because of his intimate contacts in China.
Morris didn’t refer to it specifically, but he did tell me quietly
that he was going to meet his old friend Chou en Lai in Geneva the
following week. Perhaps he quoted Dr Sun’s respect for the Jewish
people.. The mines stopped shortly afterwards. We never experienced
them again. Incidentally no-one has ever written about this before.
I regret that the conversation didn’t come around to his meeting
with Ben Gurion.
Morris (he insisted on my calling him Moishe) spent a couple of
hours with us. He felt very proud of Israel. He had been active in
pre-State days trying to help the Haganah, and later in the War of
Independence. In 1948 he approached the Israel Consul-General in
Hong-Kong, Moshe Yuval, asking if Israel needed Generals. He was
politely turned down. At one time he got hold of the plans of the
British Naval base at Singapore and offered them to an Etzel group
in Tel Aviv. The idea was to get hold of two Italian miniature
submarines and blow up British warships. It never happened.
Another time, through his network of contacts in Canada he heard
about 200 Mosquito aircraft still in crates. He went to the Canadian
Ministry of Defense accompanied by Sidney Shulemson, the most
highly decorated Canadian Jewish war ace of World War Two. He
wanted the planes for Israel. This plan also never came off; the
Canadians were willing, but Israel didn’t have the infrastructure to
absorb them, and maybe not the money to buy them or some of them. It
might have been a turning point for Israel, who knows?
He talked with me and my wife for about two hours. I asked him what
he thought of Chiang Kai Shek, whom he always thought wasn’t in the
same league as Dr Sun. He turned and said “Cyril, I was invited to
appear on a TV programme in New York a few weeks ago, and they asked
me the same question. I couldn’t say what I really thought, so I
looked straight into the camera and said “Tuchas”, knowing
that half the population of New York would understand”.
I asked him what he thought of the Chinese Communists, whom he’d
known from way back. He thought Communism was an aberration on the
Chinese character. They were individualistic, enterprising in
business because they were great gamblers (going back to his early
days in Edmonton), and the last people in the world to accept group
culture. On the other hand he admired how the Communists had done
away with much poverty in China and beggars in the streets. He knew
Mao of course, and was the only European on the podium at the
celebration of Dr Sun’s centenary. His connection with Sun was
always accepted by the Chinese authorities, whatever their political
complexion. Pictures exist of Morris with Mao Zedung.
He also said there were many similarities between the Chinese and
the Jews, both ancient civilizations with long histories and
traditions especially in family culture. Dr Sun himself, as was
mentioned before, was an admirer of the Zionist movement.
Time came for Morris to leave. He was embarrassed he didn’t know
about my children and hadn’t brought presents. But he took out a
roll of fivers (when the British Five-Pound note was still an
impressive note) and handed them out.
I took him downstairs, and he said “Cyril, are you OK, are you
happy? I said “Moishe, there’s a lot of things I could do but
there’s nothing I’d rather do”. He was a little moist-eyed at that,
gave me a big bear-hug and walked off to the car. I never saw him
He lived on in England at his sister’s house in Manchester. He
travelled to and from China, both mainland and Taiwan—one of the
very few people welcome in both places. He was an agent in England
for Rolls-Royce aircraft engines in the company’s dealings with the
died suddenly in 1970, aged 83. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery
in Salford. Representatives of both Mainland China and the
Government of Taiwan attended. His tombstone is black granite. One
side of it is English and Hebrew, the other in Chinese characters,
arranged by Mme Sun through the Chinese Embassy in London. She was
still Vice-President of China. She never forgot her friendship with
Morris and his devotion to her and Dr Sun. It was her last tribute.
Miaczyn, Canada, China, Manchester and all points between. It had
been a long road. Reform school to Chinese General. Morris was
indeed unique. If he were alive today he would “kvell”
(swell with pride) at the level of contact and co-operation
between Israel and present-day China.
For sure he would love to be part of it. Knowing him, I am certain
that would be so.