The story of the only Jew, probably the only Westerner, to become a general in the Chinese Army.
My husband, Charles, was related to the only Jew, probably the only Westerner, to become a general in the Chinese Army – known as “Two-Gun Cohen” – who played a historic part in China’s abstention and the UN’s recognition of a Jewish state in 1947.
In 1961 Charles’s mother, while staying at the King David Hotel Jerusalem, had to call the house doctor. Dr. Cyril Sherer arrived and, serendipitously, they discovered they were cousins! Cyril, a Londoner, lived many years in New Zealand but was now in Jerusalem. It was he who told the family about their illustrious cousin.
Moishe Abraham Mialczyn was born 1887 in Poland. Two years later, his family emigrated to London’s East End. His name was changed to Morris Abraham Cohen. School did not interest him, but he loved street life, markets and particularly the boxing clubs, where at age nine ‘Cockney Cohen’ won his first bout. Fortunately, his father never knew about it even after his nose was broken! He also worked for a glazier. Moishe went out at night breaking windows for the glazier to repair the next day. A perfect partnership.
At 13, he was arrested for pickpocketing and sent to a reform school. Run on military lines, they learned carpentry, gardening and English. After three years he left with no future plans.
His father, Yossef, worried, called a family council and decided to send Moishe to Canada to work on a relative’s farm. He remained there just long enough to master skills with dice, cards and guns from Bobby, a local cowhand. These became very useful in later years.
He played cards for a living, then moved to selling real estate in Edmonton, beginning a life long association with the Chinese community. He felt an affinity between Jews and Chinese – two ancient peoples with strong traditions of hard work, the will to succeed and links to their ancestral homelands.
At 19, Moishe was physically powerful and influential beyond his years. One day in a cafe he saw an elderly Chinese man quietly sipping tea. Suddenly, two Chinese thugs entered and assaulted him. Moishe, fearless and hating injustice, sprang to his defense, and threw them out. The gentleman bowed quietly, thanked him and left. He was Dr. Sun Yat Sen, who would become the first president of the Chinese republic.
While attending a Chinese lodge meeting, Moishe was formally introduced to Sun, visiting Canada to raise funds for his revolutionary activities from the large expatriate Chinese community, mostly railroad workers. They willingly supported his cause envisaging a better future for themselves and their families. In Canada, they were outcasts, badly treated, poorly paid and subject to discriminatory laws.
Sun asked Moishe to guard him during his tour, as the Chinese regime had placed a $1 million price on his head. He also requested Moishe’s help in purchasing rifles, which were then smuggled into China as “sewing machines.”
Appointed as a commissioner for oaths, Moishe became increasingly involved in local politics on behalf of the Chinese, elevating their status to a group with political significance. He also consolidated his own position as a successful wheeler-dealer.
By 1911, there was a revolution in China when Sun and his followers overthrew the corrupt Qing Dynasty. That same year Moishe visited his family in London, the “prodigal son” returning as a successful businessman. But everything changed in 1914, with the outbreak of World War I. He joined the Canadian army, experiencing the horrors of trench warfare and fierce fighting at the Battle of Ypres in France.
After the war he returned to Edmonton a hero, but the real estate boom was over and he needed a new occupation, at the same time continuing to raise support for Sun.
In 1922 Moishe received a request from Sun with help regarding railway construction. He left for China and on arrival Sun asked Moishe to remain as his bodyguard and arms buyer. He happily accepted, moved into Sun’s house and dedicated himself to protecting him. Moishe admired Sun for his quiet dignity and Sun saw Moishe as someone honest, who could be trusted. He also developed a friendship with Soong Ching-ling, wife of Sun, that lasted a lifetime.
Wherever Sun went, Moishe, his indispensable aide, was close behind. One attack on Sun’s life resulted in a bullet injury to Moishe’s arm. Moishe realized he would be much safer shooting with both hands, so he purchased two Smith and Wesson pistols that he always carried with him, (even, as he told Cyril, keeping them under his pillow whilst staying at the Mayfair Hotel, London). Thereafter he became known as “Two-Gun Cohen.”
Moishe was also active buying arms on behalf of Sun’s government. At one meeting he negotiated a deal entirely in Yiddish with the local warlord who had lived with a Jewish family whilst studying overseas.
Sadly Sun died in 1925. Moishe confessed that he cried only twice in his life, once for Dr. Sun, and once for his father. He said that the period spent with Sun was the first time in his life that he felt he had truly found his place. Before dying, Sun gave Moishe a letter stating that China would never do anything to harm the Jews: “I express my sympathy to the Zionist movement – one of the greatest movements,” he wrote, offering support “to restore your wonderful and historical nation which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world and which rightly deserves an honorable place in the family of nations.”
Morris (Moishe) Cohen. (Wikimedia Commons)
Moishe remained in China as a military adviser to Sun’s successor, Chiang Kai Shek, and in 1928 the Chinese parliament appointed Moishe as a full general, carrying a life pension. For relaxation he would spend time at Shanghai’s Jewish Club, where there was a sizable Jewish community, mainly comprising Russians who had fled the 1917 Revolution and Iraqi jews seeking their fortunes. He became known for his generosity and the lavish parties that he threw for friends.
However, the Far East was by now in turmoil and painful years followed. In 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria and later China, culminating in the Rape of Nanking in 1937. Somehow, Chiang Kai Shek retained power.
In 1941, the Japanese seized Hong Kong. Moishe placed Madame Sun and her sister Ai-ling on one of the last planes out of the British colony but he stayed, waiting for the inevitable.
He was immediately arrested and taken to the notorious Stanley Internment camp for two years, being constantly beaten and losing 60 lbs. Moishe told Cyril that, at this, the lowest point of his life, he often found himself reciting the Shema – the Jewish prayer he remembered from childhood.
Thanks to a Red Cross prisoner exchange in 1943, he was evacuated to Canada where, as a member of the Chinese delegation, he took part in the founding of the UN. For the next few years he shuttled between Montreal and China trying to do business deals and keeping up his old contacts.
In 1947, Moishe heard that China intended to vote at the UN against the creation of the Jewish state. He was deeply affected by the struggle for independence of the Jews in Mandatory Palestine and immediately contacted his good friend, General Wu Tiechingm the Chinese representative at the United Nations, producing the letter he had received from Sun so many years ago.
When all the efforts by Zionist leaders to meet with Wu Tieching failed, they brought Cohen to San Francisco to urge him to use his connections to influence Wu. It urns out that Cohen had not only been an advisor to Wu when the latter had served as the Canton police chief, but he had also later appointed Wu as a general in the Chinese army.
In a meeting the very next morning, Cohen presented Wu with the 1920 letter he had received from Sun expressing his strong support for the Zionist cause, and Moishe convinced his old friend, Wu, to abstain in the Palestine partition vote.
As a result, China abstained and the vote was passed. Israel was born. Moishe tried enlisting in the Israel army, but was gently told that they had no need for 60-year-old ex-generals. He was deeply disappointed.
He did, however, help in other ways. One day the phone rang in Cyril’s Jerusalem surgery. It was the deep booming voice of the general, invited by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to spend a week in Israel as his guest.
Why had he been invited? Cyril guessed it must have been because Palestinian terrorists were scattering button mines near schools in the North. These harmless looking discs, manufactured in China, were being picked up by children, whose hands were blown off. Immediately after Moishe’s Israel trip, he visited his old friend Zhou Enlai (the Chinese prime minister) in Geneva. He very likely produced Sun’s letter again, as suddenly the mines stopped.
By now Moishe was living with his sister’s family in Manchester, acting as a consultant to the Rolls Royce aircraft company whose products the Chinese used in their Vickers Viscount airplanes.
He was one of the few Westerners to be allowed to travel to both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. He admired the Communists’ achievements for their masses, but felt it was in contradiction to the highly individualistic Chinese character.
The Chinese government continued to pay his pension and in 1966, the 100th anniversary of Sun’s birth, Moishe was the only westerner on the podium in Peking, (now Beijing) together with Mao Tse-Tung and Zhou Enlai.
Cyril recalled the huge bear hugs of this emotional, affectionate and sentimental man. Aged 58, Moishe married Judith Clarke, an attractive Jewish businesswoman from Montreal. They divorced after 11 years but remained friends; Judith saying that she felt she had been married to China rather than to Moishe.
In 1977, he died and was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Manchester with a headstone in English, Hebrew and Chinese, paid for by the Chinese government – a tribute from the people he served so well. The tomb was inscribed by Soong Ching-Ling, Sun’s widow, then-vice chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Peking. It identified him as “Mah Kun” – as close as the Chinese could get to Morris Cohen’s name, meaning “clenched fist.”
Charles and I visited China some years ago. One day we visited a remote village, where we were invited into the home of a local farmer. On the wall was a large photo obviously of someone important. It was Dr. Sun Yat Sen, still considered by so many in China as the father of the republic.
Moishe’s life reads like a film script. Cyril related how many years ago the family were told that he had been decapitated by the Chinese for some misdemeanor. They sat shiva – the Jewish mourning period. Two months later, he unexpectedly turned up in London. No explanations.
It was sometimes said that Moishe never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, but according to Cyril, who met him several times and on whose memoir this is based, it all happened.
Thank you Cyril – who died at the age of 97 in 2018 and is sadly missed – for bringing Moishe into my life. I loved getting to know him.
From poverty and petty crime he rose to become a man of substance. Watching the old newsreels of him, the only Westerner proudly walking in Sun’s funeral cortege and again at the 100th anniversary of his birth, you see a man who used his wits, charm and humor to achieve something extraordinary.