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The Kohnowitz Family of Rokiskis


by Harvey Cohen, of Melbourne, Australia 
 

My grandfather Herman Cohen (according to his brother Abraham's attestation on Herman's application for naturalization for Australian citizenship) was born in Rokiskis on January 22, 1863.   We know nothing of Herman's life until he was was in Glasgow,  UK in 1887.

The family legend as to how he chose to shorten his name to Cohen is worth recounting. Glasgow is a notoriously secretarian UK provincial town. When he first arrived, he tried to trade as a watchmaker, with the abbreviated name Kogan. But he was subjected to extreme prejudice. He was thought to be an Irish Coggin ! So to free himself from racial prejudice, he took the Jewish name of Cohen. (You wouldn't take a watch to an Irish watchmaker, but a Jewish one could fix it.)

The story  appears to have some basis in truth, but it also is in the family lore that he took the same name for consistency with  some other relative -- maybe his uncle MJ Cohen -- who was also in Glasgow at this time.

At any rate, under the name Hermann Cohen he married Fanny Rosenberg in London in  1891,  where he worked as a watchmaker and jeweler. He was in Berlin in 1887. His four sons, Ben, John, Donald and Raymond (my father) were born in London.  In 1899, he visited  South Africa, but returned to London, finally going to live in Johannesburg in 1903. In Johannesburg he was an auctioneer, but after the Boer War, business was depressed, so he took his wife and family to Sydney, Australia.

Herman's  strong Jewish commitment is evident by his membership in the Glasgow Hebrew Congregation, his involvement with the Great Synagogue and the Dukes Place Synagogue in London, and the Witwatersrand Old Hebrew Congregation in Johannesburg, and the great Synagogue in Sydney.

Clearly Herman (born 1863)  had departed from Lithuania at call-up age to escape the Draconian May Laws of 1881. However there is no family lore re: his own experiences in Rokiskis, and how he had made his way to Glasgow. Maybe he paid a bribe to avoid the military draft; maybe he just escaped across the border. Only very recently have we learnt that his wife Fanny lost her mother in a pogrom in Pultusk, yet this was not ever reported to us by her children.

In Sydney, Herman established a Carpet shop, close to Circular Quay and the (future) Sydney Harbour Bridge. This shop -- with its well-known neon sign -- Cohen the Carpet King --  was carried on by Herman's eldest son Ben, and then by Ben's son Neville -- until massive reconstruction of the Sydney Rock's area lead to the demolition of the building in 1979. Herman's second son John was a musician, the third son Donald, who died tragically young was an artist, while my father Raymond won a scholarship to Sydney University, where he became a civil engineer.

The Australian Cohen family has a tendency to have mainly sons: Herman had the four named above plus an unnamed male still-birth; while Elizabeth and I had just three sons, before Zara was born; my cousin Neville has 2 sons).

Herman's brother, Abraham Cohen married for the first time in Rokiskis, to Rebecca (??). They had five children, all of whom came to the U.S.  Rebecca died young. His eldest daughter Miriam and Samuel Grand migrated to Whitman, Massachusetts. in the early 1900's shortly  after  their marriage.   After a few years they brought to the U.S., Abraham Cohen and his second wife Libby  and Samuel Grand's brothers, Meir and Samuel.

All settled  in  the  same  town,  Whitman,  Massachusetts,  and  all spent the remainder of their lives there. Abraham's other children also migrated to Massachusetts. Abraham and Herman's sister, Baileh and husband lived in later years in Brockton, Massachusetts, with some of their descendants, but one son Zechariah (Jimmy) and Dora [Sandground] Rosen  migrated to South Africa, where there are now a sizeable number of descendants.

 

Be sure to see Cohen Family Photos

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