Tag Archives: Canada

Jew of the Week: Morris Cohen

China’s “Uncrowned Jewish King”

Morris Cohen sitting next to Chinese President Chiang Kai-Shek (Credit: Joe King)

(Credit: Joe King)

Moshe Morris Abraham Cohen (1887-1970) was born in Poland to a poor Orthodox Jewish family. While he was still an infant, his family fled the pogroms and settled in London, England. Growing up, Cohen often got in trouble so his parents sent him to work on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada, hoping to mend his ways. There, he learned the value of hard work, in addition to playing cards and shooting guns. He became good friends with Chinese railroad workers, and even defended a Chinese man who was being robbed – a big deal at a time when white people rarely stood up for the Chinese in those days. Cohen’s friends invited him to join the revolutionary party of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who would become modern China’s founding father and first president. Cohen agreed to train Chinese-Canadians in military combat and helped secure weapons for China’s revolutionary army. Meanwhile, he settled in Edmonton and became a successful real estate broker. Cohen was soon appointed as the province of Alberta’s Commissioner of Oaths. With the outbreak of World War I, he fought valiantly with the Canadian Railway Troops. Finding it hard to make a living in Canada after the war, he moved to China. Cohen was hired by Sun Yat-sen to train his forces, procure arms, and serve as his personal bodyguard. After once taking a bullet while protecting Sun Yat-sen in an assassination attempt, he started carrying two guns, and henceforth was known as “Two-Gun Cohen”, though the Chinese called him Ma Kun, “Clenched Fist”. Following Sun Yat-sen’s death, Cohen continued working for China as a military commander and head of their secret service. During World War II, it was Cohen that proved the Japanese were using poison gas against Chinese civilians. Cohen was captured in battle by Japanese soldiers. He was nearly beaten to death before being freed in a prisoner exchange. Cohen then returned to Canada, settled in Montreal, and finally married. He spent the rest of his life in relative quiet, working as a consultant in various capacities, and often traveling to China. (He had the distinction of being the only person allowed to travel freely between China and Taiwan – as he was friendly with leaders of both nations, despite their antagonism towards each other.) Perhaps his last great act was convincing the Taiwanese not to oppose the UN Partition Plan that gave birth to the State of Israel. Taiwan’s position on the UN Security Council made their vote critical, and they intended to oppose the plan until Cohen stepped in. He also helped to arm the nascent State of Israel in its War of Independence. Cohen’s life inspired two books, as well as the 1936 film The General Died at Dawn, and the 1984 film The Gunrunner, starring Kevin Costner. As a major general in China’s revolutionary army (to this day, the only Westerner to hold such a high rank in the Chinese military), one-time head of China’s secret service, and Sun Yat-sen’s personal aide, Cohen played an instrumental role in the founding of modern China. He was once described as China’s “uncrowned Jewish king”.

Yom Kippur Begins Tonight! Gmar Chatima Tova!

Words of the Week

All lovers of democracy cannot help but support… the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world and which rightly deserves an honourable place in the family of nations.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen, on his support for the Zionist movement

Jew of the Week: Fania Nisanov

Fania Nisanov, ת.נ.צ.ב.ה

Fania Nisanov, ת.נ.צ.ב.ה

Fania Nisanov (1924-2015) was born to an observant Bukharian-Jewish family in Kokand, Uzbekistan. Her father was the last in a long line of fabric dyers and merchants from the Emirate of Bukhara, the old Silk Road trading centre (and a UNESCO World Heritage site). One of eight surviving children, as a child she rose early each Friday morning to bake loaves of bread with her mother and sisters, which they then distributed to the poor in their community for the Sabbath. Unfortunately, the wealthy family was a target for criminals, and were robbed of all their possessions on multiple occasions. Despite these tough times, and the opposition from her family at a time when women were expected to stay at home, Nisanov pursued higher education and medical studies, becoming one of the first female doctors in the region. This made her part of an indispensable team that took care of the many ailing World War II veterans. Among those veterans was her future husband, David Polvanov, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party and a war hero that served in both European and Pacific battle zones. Ultimately, Nisanov became a pediatrician and worked diligently for some 40 years, treating children around the clock, never refusing a patient even when they arrived at her doorstep in the middle of the night. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nisanov immigrated to Israel with her family. There, she took care of her grandchildren and worked from home to help support the family. Among her many jobs was tying and knotting tzitzit (Jewish ritual fringes).The family would move once more to Canada, where Nisanov was a communal leader and elder in Toronto’s Bukharian community. She was frequently visited by travelers from Israel, Uzbekistan, and the US, who came in gratitude for her life-saving role in their lives. Famous for her wisdom, modesty, and sense of humour, she was never slowed down by a life-long disability, a battle with colon cancer, arthritis, and chronic pain. Even in her last days she would be seen with a smile on her face and a “Baruch Hashem” on her lips. Sadly, Fania Nisanov, our dear grandmother, passed away early yesterday morning.

Words of the Week

G-d transforms spirituality into physicality; the Jew must transform physical things into spiritual ones.
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov