Saturday, December 9, 2017

My Great-Grandfather the Anarchist, part 1

Catchy title, huh? It's quite true too. I grew up on stories of my mother's grandfather, JJ Cohen, told by my mom, my Granny Emma, his daughter, and my great-uncle Red Conason, his son.

Yosef Yakov Kantorowitz was born on 31 August 1878, probably in the city of Baranovici, Novogrudok uyezd, Minsk gubernia, Russia. He was the third child and second son of an eventual total of ten children of Leib Kantorowitz and Sarah Leah (Movshovsky) Moskowitz. His father was a forester who worked for wealthy landowners and the family moved around a lot, following their father on his jobs. Leib Kantorowitz's parents lived in the big "city" of Baranovici (according to Izzy Cohen, JJ's youngest brother). Sarah Leah's parents, Avremel Naftalies and Hanelle Moskowitz/Movshovsky, lived in the small town of Turets, also in Novogrudok uyezd and JJ and his siblings often lived with them.

Young JJ was very intelligent and was sent off to live with various relatives to study to be a Rabbi in Vilna. However his memoir, The House Stood Forlorn (1954), recounts his dislike for religious education and his radicalization. He joined the Bund and devoured everything he could find on radical politics even while he served in the Czar's army (not a safe thing to do!). His older brother David Cohen would send pamphlets and other materials from England as well. After he finished his service in the army, he decided to emigrate to America, where David had already gone. His father urged him to marry his sweetheart, Sophie Kaplan, before he left and take her with him. He had met Sophie due to the fact that his older sister Bella Kantorowitz had married Sophie's older half-brother David Kaplan in 1898.

As this passenger manifest from shows on lines 11 to 15, Josef Kantorowicz was traveling with his sister(-in-law) Mary (Horvitz) Kantorowicz and her children Chaie and Itzak (later known as Clara Cohen Meier and Emil Conason). He was escorting them to his brother, Mary's husband, David Cohen in Trenton, N.J. On the next line is Scheine Kaplan who was going to her brother David Kaplan in Philadelphia. This was actually Sophie (whose Hebrew name was Shanaleba, meaning beautiful love). She might not have been able to change her papers to show that she was now married to JJ.

The story goes that this small group had snuck over the border from Russia at night in secret. Their guide told them they had to be absolutely quiet but young Itzak/Emil was already talking at not quite 1 year old and they had to hold a hand over his mouth to keep him quiet. They also gave him a rag soaked in rum to suck on so he would fall asleep. Then they made their way, probably by train to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. David Cohen had paid for their tickets, while Sophie had paid for her own ticket. They embarked on the SS Statendam in steerage on 4 April 1903 and took 10 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean, arriving at the port of New York on 14 April 1903. According to the passenger manifest, JJ had $5 and Mary had $5 and Sophie had $11. Such sums went a lot further in those days.

The above photograph is the SS Staatendam, source:

They may have taken a train to Trenton to drop off Mary and the kids and then JJ and Sophie went on to Philadelphia to start their new life in America. At this point JJ took the Americanized name of Joseph Jacob Cohen, known to family and friends as JJ or Joe Cohen and Scheine Kaplan became Sophie Cohen.

Recently, to my surprise, I found JJ and Sophie's marriage certificate in the Pennsylvania archives even though the story was that they had gotten married in Russia. Perhaps they felt they needed an American certificate, or the story was wrong.

In Philadelphia, through JJ's international contacts, they quickly found fellow radicals. JJ's English teacher was the well-known anarchist, Voltairine de Cleyre. My grandmother, Emma Cohen Gilbert, who was born on 9 August 1904 in Philadelphia, remembered standing up in her crib and piping a Yiddish rhyme but that was the only Yiddish she ever learned. Voltairine was a great English teacher. Emma remembered her father striding around reciting poetry. Neither JJ or Sophie had accents, perhaps because of Voltairine's teaching pronunciation and accent through poetry. She also converted JJ to anarchism from socialism.

The above photographs of JJ and Sophie were taken in Philadelphia very shortly after their arrival in 1903.

My grandmother was named for Emma Goldman who was a family friend as was Alexander Berkman. She remembered not liking Emma who was cold towards the children but everyone loved "Sasha" as Berkman was known. Through Voltairine, JJ became the librarian of the Radical Library of Philadelphia, which was located at 424 Pine Street. The young family lived in an apartment above the library. They would move around a lot to various different apartments, seeking cheaper rent, or perhaps to avoid paying the rent? JJ also became the editor of the Philadelphia anarchist newspaper, Broyt un Frayhayt (Bread and Freedom) which only lasted for one year, 1906. A wonderful chapter outlining these years has been translated from JJ's book, Di Yidish-Anarkhistishe Bavegung in Amerike (The Jewish-Anarchist Movement in America) (Philadelphia: Radical Library, 1945). I do possess a photocopy of a manuscript translation of the book, done by Esther Dolgoff, an anarchist friend of JJ's, but it is handwritten and nowhere as clear as this translation. I hope this new translator may be able to do more of the book.

For some time, JJ worked as a reader to cigar makers in a factory. This was a practice where the cigar makers would employ a reader with a clear strong voice to read newspapers and books, often on radical subjects, while they worked. He would maintain a membership in the Cigar Makers International Union for the rest of his life, but most of his working career was spent as an activist, journalist, editor, public speaker, educator and commune organizer.

Much more to come in future blogs!

References: Cohen, Joseph J. The House Stood Forlorn: Legacy of Remembrance of a Boyhood in the Russia of the Late Nineteenth Century (Paris: Editions Polyglottes, 1954). The typescript manuscript and illustrations are still in family hands.


  1. Marvelous, Jenny! So much I don't know about my own grandfather and namesake, who passed away three months before I was born. One pertinent note: Red's middle name was Voltaire, after Voltairine de Cleyre (not the French philosopher). So grateful for your work. Please keep going!

  2. Thanks, Joe! Yes, I've always been convinced JJ had a sense of humor because he named his son Emanuel Voltaire Cohen. Emanuel means son of God, Voltaire refers both to Voltairine, an anarchist, and Voltaire, an atheist, and Cohen meant of the priestly caste. Did I ever send you that article where a judge chastises Red for changing his name from Cohen to Conason?

  3. I know this doesn't relate to this article, but I read your post on Alexander Key in another article and the fact that many of his paintings resided in private collections. My mother inherited one of those collections. There are probably 10 paintings and many original sketches of the illustrations from his books. If interested, I'd like to discuss with you.