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Freedom Fighter Given Refuge by the Cohen Family in WWII Shanghai

Ed Shalom
8 May, 2012
  1. A.   Introduction

This paper began as an inquiry into the assertion made by my aunt,  Lolly Choueke (nee Cohen), in her recorded speech on China that her parents, Solomon Pinchas and Aziza Cohen,  provided refuge in their Shanghai home to Jacques Marcuse,  a member of the Free French  during WWII.  In her talk, Lolly describes how the Cohen house was visited several times by the police, who asked about M. Marcuse’s location. At these times,  he would hide in the upper stories of their home, while the Cohen family denied knowledge of his whereabouts, at a significant risk to themselves.


Upon researching the events providing by all sources, it was a surprise that the basic facts are actually corroborated in a book by Emily Hahn entitled “China to Me”.  Additional information regarding M. Marcuse was obtained through  a number of news reports published about him, and  via e-mail correspondence with his son, Elie Marcuse.


  1. B.   Who Was Jacques Marcuse ?

To begin with, there was a very well known foreign journalist named Jacques Marcuse who worked in China for many decades.  During the war years, he worked for Havas, the first French news agency, created in 1835 (The Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency comes from it).


Aunt Lolly mentioned that Jacques Marcuse was “a friend of the Cohen family”, and it turns out that her sister Hannah actually worked for him. In addition, he was a Jew, with the same surname as the German Jewish philosopher Herbert Marcuse (a distant relative).


Jacques Marcuse  is perhaps most well known for the authorship of the Peking Papers, which was published in 1967 (In the photo above of  M. Marcuse, which appeared in the Peking Papers,  he appears with his tradmark  monocle and pipe). As to his personality, he was generally known to be cynical, acerbic, eccentric, adventuresome, quixotic, and somewhat of a ladies man.


Aside from his book, Marcuse had a respectable career after WWII, writing several pieces about China for the New York Times. In one of these, after writing that  Chinese children are indoctrinated to spy on their parents and Chinese neighbors urged to spy on one another, he was expelled from China in May 1965.


Emily Hahn’s book, “China to Me” , has numerous references to Jacques Marcuse, as well as to an Englishwoman named Corin Bernfeld, who was a close friend to Emily Hahn, and one of the central characters in her book. For a number of years, Corin was involved in a tempestuous affair with Jacques Marcuse, although she clearly cared for him much more than he cared for her.


It turns out that the history of  Jacques Marcuse, Corin Bernfeld, and the Cohen family were interwoven in a rather dramatic way. Some relevant passages from Emily Hahn’s China to Me are extracted below; the portions that are most pertinent to this narrative are highlighted in bold text.

  1. C.   Extracts from China to Me by Emily Hahn

Page 399:


In the meantime Jacques found refuge in a Parsee''s house where he was safely hidden until his second escape attempt was successful, much later on. The Parsee had three handsome daughters. When Corin was released from Bridge House, full of excitement at the news that the exchange was actually going to take place and she would be eligible to sail as correspondent of an American news agency, she was greeted with the rumor that Jacques was engaged to be married to the prettiest of his Parsee hostesses.


Evidently she (Corin) tried to be very simple and efficient about it all. She told John Alexander, who with his family was confidently awaiting the ship on which the Alexanders would sail as diplomats, that she intended to kill herself. John knew her well and probably thought that he knew what to say.


"If you do it just now you''ll make the (prisoner) exchange impossible, perhaps," he said. "The Japanese have closed their lists and they must deliver every one of us safe to the Americans at Lourenco Marques. Think of what it might mean to thousands of people if you are selfish enough to commit suicide now! You know how touchy the Japs are. I am not arguing with your intention, Corin; your life and death are your own affair. But promise me, at any rate, to wait until the ship has sailed."


Corin promised, after an argument. That night she wrote a letter to John saying that she was breaking her promise. He had extracted it, she said, under compulsion, because as he well knew she had been in no position to take a stand against him. Now she could not wait any longer. Her death was due, overdue by many months of anguish. "I can''t bear the torture of living for another five minutes,"''wrote Corin in a precise hand. Then she drank a bottle of Lysol and died.

  1. D.   Observations and Speculations

It is clear from Hahn’s book, and numerous other sources, that Marcuse was in peril vis-à-vis the Japanese authorities, because of his writings and outspoken support for General Charles De Gaulle, who was in fact the ultimate leader of the  Free French Forces during World War II.


As such, we can conclude that the Cohen parents understood M. Marcuse to be a supporter of the Free French movement, and one of the leaders of the movement in Shanghai. At the same time we should recognize that the cruelty of the Japanese occupying forces was very well known at the time.


If fact, Hannah Cohen was interrogated twice by the Japanese,  and her elder sister Rachel  once, in Shanghai’s infamous “Bridge House”, with demands that they give information on M. Marcuse’s location.  In spite of the frightening environment of  this well known “torture house”, where one could hear the screams of the othe inmates, both sisters refused to give any information.


In this context, it is clear that ultimately the entire family would have appreciated the gravity of the situation, and the significant peril to all of them.


Given this situation, Jacques Marcuse had good reason to attempt to flee from the Japanese authorities, as evidenced by the fact that his acquaintances were incarcerated in Bridge House, the Shanghai gendarme station.


Regarding the quaint characterization by Emily Hahn that “Jacques found refuge in a Parsee house”, while not accurate,  in context it is easy to understand why she would describe the Cohen family as “Parsees”, a common usage at the time for Jews from the Persian Gulf.


Returning the Emily Hahn’s description of the “three handsome daughters” of the Parsee family, this is also easy to understand, even though the Cohen family had seven daughters at the time. 


If we assume that M. Marcuse stayed with the Cohens in early 1942, he would have been about 31 years old at the time, while the approximate ages of the sisters would be: Rae 30 years, Hannah 24 years, Mozelle 20 years, Becky 16 years, Lolly 14 years, with Rosie & Sophie younger than Lolly. As such, it makes sense that from a bachelor’s perspective Marcuse would  be focusing on the three older Cohen sisters present at the time.


During his stay in the Cohen home, Lolly has confirmed that Marcuse did in fact become enamoured of the eldest sister Rachel (“Rae”, who passed away in 2001) , and by the time of his departure they did in fact intend to marry. We would expect that the closest affinity to M. Marcuse would be with Rae; being the eldest sister, she was the most erudite and cosmopolitan of the group, and most likely to be interested in an individual such as Jacques Marcuse – in fact, she did ultimately marry Max Faerber, who worked as a foreign correspondent, and who also had a dramatic history of fleeing persecution as a journalist.


As an interesting aside, Marcuse continued writing stories from the Cohen house,  often using long phone calls to communicate with others. Since he was house-bound, Rae provided him good news information for his writings,  which she obtained at times from her boss, Ellis Hayim, a very prominent and wealthy Shanghai stockbroker.


We would be be treading onto dangerous territory to determine who amongst the Cohen sisters was “the fairest of them all”. However,  it is fair to concede that at the time Rae was considered to a classic beauty, and all-in-all, given his background and her personality,  that Jacques might have found her most intruiging.


As far as Corin’s suicide goes, from Emily Hahn’s writing it is clear that Corin was a very conflicted and troubled woman, who continued with a relationship with Marcuse over many years that was very damaging to her, in spite of numerous indications over the years that Marcuse was not devoted to her.


Maybe if Jacques had not stayed in the Cohen home, the event that triggered Corin’s suicide would have been delayed, or perhaps overcome by other events. This is something we will never know.


M. Marcuse’s stay in the Cohen house ended after several months, when the the British Embassy smuggled him out of the Cohen house and onto a ship. They gave him two days notice, and told him to leave without any luggage or clothing, in order to appear like someone who was escaping.


Although the Cohen family sheltered  Jacques Marcuse for months at great risk,  and even though two of their daughters, one of whom was his fiancee,  withstood the most fierce and frightening interrogation without disclosing his whereabouts, and in spite of the fact when he left he was engaged to marry the eldest daughter,for years no one in the Cohen family ever heard from Jacques Marcuse after he left their doorstep.  Several of the Cohen sisters have related that Jacques Marcuse actually returned to Shanghai after the war, with the intention of resuming his relationship with Rae, and discovered that she had married Max Faerber during his absence.


The Cohen sisters did not fully disclose these events to their children for seven decades, and only revealed them recently, after persistent inquiries. Understandably, this events resulted in a some degree of pain, but it is hard to imagine that the Cohen sisters could have found better soul mates that the men they ultimately married.


In conclusion, regarding the actions of Solomon Pinhas and Aziza Cohen, we can only admire their courage, and the courage of  their daughters,  in providing refuge for Jacques Marcuse in their home. There is no doubt there would have been severe consequences if  they had been discovered.


This action is consistent with all of the other actions the Cohen family engaged in during the war to help refugees, which was in fact consistent with the risks undertaken by many other families in Shanghai, of which this episode is only one instance.