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My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

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Morris 'Two Gun' CohenGeneral Morris (2 Gun) Cohen, a personal recollection by his cousin Dr Cyril Sherer

Morris 'Two Gun' Cohen, left

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 harm.

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 Engineers.

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 again.

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 People’s Republic.

The grave of Morris 'Two Gun' CohenHe 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.






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