Tag Archives: English Jews

Jew of the Week: Harriet Cohen

The Piano Sensation Who Saved Refugees

Harriet Pearl Alice Cohen (1901-1967) was born in London, England to a Jewish family with Russian heritage. She started playing piano in early childhood, and by age 13 won the Ada Lewis Scholarship and the Sterndale Bennett Prize from the Royal Academy of Music. A year later, she made her professional debut and soon became one of the most popular musicians in England. She was noted for resurrecting old English compositions that had been forgotten, as well as opening up Spanish and Russian music to the wider world. In fact, she was permitted to visit the Soviet Union (and perform there) in 1935, bringing back great compositions by contemporary Russians that she then performed around the world. While visiting Vienna in 1933, Cohen first recognized the plight of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. She decided to devote herself to their cause. Cohen went on to raise large sums of money to support the refugees, and worked with several organizations to bring them to safety. In 1934, she performed a special benefit concert, with Albert Einstein on the violin (!), to raise money. Einstein was only one of Cohen’s many admirers. Charming and witty, Cohen’s close circle of friends included H.G. Wells, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, and Chaim Weizmann. The latter won her over to the Zionist cause. Cohen made her first trip to the Holy Land in 1939, and quickly gained a reputation as a passionate Zionist. She fought so passionately, in fact, that it led to two assassination attempts on her life! Both for her musical contributions, and for her work with refugees, Cohen was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (one step below being knighted) in 1938. Unfortunately, she would later severely damage her right hand on broken glass, and could no longer use it. Undeterred, she continued to play and perform with her left hand only, and renowned composer Sir Arnold Bax (another admirer) wrote for her the Concertino for Left Hand. Bax would credit her with inspiring most of his compositions, while Albert Einstein referred to her as “the beloved piano-witch”. Cohen was also credited with bringing Bach back into the spotlight (listen to her play Bach here). She recorded music for films, too, and published two books. In 1954, she was awarded the key to the City of London. Many see Harriet Cohen as one of the first modern music superstars.

Words of the Week

Better to talk to a woman and think of God, than to talk to God and think of a woman.
– Yiddish Proverb  

Jews of the Week: Sybil, David Solomon, and James Meyer Sassoon

In honour of Jew of the Week’s 9th birthday this November, we will feature a month-long series on the Sassoon family, the “Rothschilds of the East”. This is the final Part 4. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

David Solomon Sassoon

David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942), the grandson of patriarch David Sassoon, was born in Bombay, India. He was deeply religious, and spent much of his life travelling in search of ancient and rare Jewish manuscripts. By 1932, he had amassed an incredible collection of over 1200 unique texts. He described them in his two-volume tome, Ohel David. Today, these works are an indispensable tool for scholars of Judaism. Unfortunately, many of the manuscripts were auctioned off in recent decades to pay off the Sassoon estate’s tax debts to the British government. Many others are stored at the University of Toronto, and some at the British Library.

Sybil Rachel Sassoon, the Marchioness of Cholmondeley

Sybil Rachel Betty Cecile Sassoon, the Marchioness of Cholmondeley (1894-1989), daughter of Edward Sassoon, she wished to assist the war effort during World War II, and joined the Women’s Royal Navy Service. She went on to serve as Superintendent of the Women’s Royal Navy Service, and a Chief Staff Officer. In 1946, she was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for her valiant service. Her great-grandson is actor Jack Huston.

Rachel Sassoon Beer (1858-1927), daughter of Sasson David Sassoon, married a wealthy German-English banker and converted to Christianity, for which her family disowned her. She started writing for The Observer, and eventually became its editor. (She later became editor of the Sunday Times, too.) It was Rachel who managed to secure a confession from Count Ferdinand Esterhazy that the “evidence” against Alfred Dreyfus was forged, and that Dreyfus was innocent. This led to Dreyfus’ release from prison. (And it was the Dreyfus Affair that was one of the key elements in inspiring Theodor Herzl.) Rachel left much of her wealth to her nephew, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), a war hero and one of the most celebrated poets of World War I.

The Right Honourable James Mayer Sassoon, The Lord Sassoon

The son of another of Rachel’s nephews is James Meyer Sassoon (b. 1955), who was born in London and studied at Eton College, followed by Oxford University. After heading a number of investment firms, he joined the British Treasury in 2002. Five years later, he was appointed as president of the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering. Among his duties was combat financing for terrorists. He was knighted in 2008, and entered the House of Lords in 2010, taking on the title of Baron Sassoon. He also served as the first Commercial Secretary to the Treasury.

Words of the Week

I prefer a wicked person who knows they are wicked, to a righteous person who knows they are righteous.
Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin (c. 1745-1815)

Jews of the Week: Edward and Philip Sassoon

In honour of Jew of the Week’s 9th birthday this November, we will feature a month-long series on the Sassoon family, the “Rothschilds of the East”. This is Part 3. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here

Sir Edward Sassoon (1856-1912), the son of Albert Sassoon, was born in Bombay, India. He studied at the University of London, and served in the British Army, rising to the rank of major. Edward diligently continued the communal and philanthropic work of his father. In 1899 he was elected to the British House of Commons. One of the most famous bills he proposed was a law to make wireless telegraphs mandatory on all passenger ships. However, the bill was struck down over budget issues—until 1912, when the Titanic sank. By 1914, an international treaty made it mandatory for all passenger ships to have telegraphs. Sir Edward was a close friend of Arthur Balfour, famous for his 1917 Balfour Declaration that paved the way for establishing the State of Israel. Edward married Aline Caroline de Rothschild, granddaughter of (former Jew of the Week) Jacob “James” Rothschild.

Their first child was Sir Philip Albert Gustave David Sassoon (1888-1939). He studied at the prestigious Eton College, and then at Oxford—one of just 25 Jewish students at the time. Following this, he joined the British Army and had the rank of second lieutenant. He followed his father into Parliament in 1912. When World War I broke out, Sir Philip was sent to mainland Europe and was the private secretary of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force. He was later awarded the Croix de Guerre for “distinguished service” in the war. Returning to Parliament after the war, Sir Philip made it his personal mission to bring civilian air travel to England and the world. Airplanes were still little-known by the public, and considered far too dangerous. Sir Philip bought his own airplane in 1919 to promote air travel to the masses. In 1931, he was appointed Under-Secretary of State for Air. He also served as England’s First Commissioner of Works, and chaired London’s famous National Gallery. Philip owned Trent Park in the north of London, and built a mansion there where he liked to host his many friends. Interestingly, during World War II the British used Trent Park as a luxury prison for high-ranking German POWs, on whom they carefully spied and extracted critical information, which was instrumental for winning the war.

Words of the Week

The main superiority of man over animals is in his power of speech. But if we speak vanity and folly, we are no better than animals.
Rabbi Moshe Leib Erblich of Sassov (1745-1807), the Sassover Rebbe