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Riki Goldstein

Lieutenant Colonel Mordaunt Cohen, the oldest and highest-ranking British Jewish officer to serve in World War II still alive, will be 102 this summer

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

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While no one could fathom what horrors were to come, he’d heard what was happening in Germany and felt he couldn’t ignore it. “As a Jew,” he says, “I wanted to be in there doing my bit for my country and my people against the German enemy” (Photos: Mendel Photography)

W hen World War II ended in Europe in May of 1945, not every Allied troop could throw up his hat in celebration. British Lieutenant Colonel Mordaunt Cohen, an Orthodox Jew who kept mitzvos even as he’d been dispatched to the ends of the earth, had been sent to Burma via Bombay where “we felt we were part of the forgotten war, out there in the bush. Everyone was at home celebrating, and we were still out there fighting in conditions you can’t imagine.”

Cohen, who will turn 102 this summer, has no regrets, though. The war had taken him from the close-knit Jewish community in the northern British town of Sunderland where he grew up, to bustling Indian cities and commanding Muslim troops, first in Nigeria and later in Burma. Over seven decades have passed since then, but Mordaunt Cohen is still every bit the soldier: patriotic, confident, humble, kind, and brave.

As the highest-ranking veteran of World War II service in Burma and Britain’s highest-ranking Jewish World War II veteran as well, the lieutenant colonel’s colorful life and incredible memory for detail has fascinated many audiences over the years, both within England’s Jewish community and in schools around the country. So it really wasn’t a shock when his name was included on the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s honors list, making him an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his services to Second World War education.

 

Doing My Part

Mordaunt Cohen was born on August 6, 1916, to Israel and Sophie Cohen in Sunderland, about 13 miles from Gateshead. While there’s no longer an Orthodox community in Sunderland, in its heyday the British industrial port town hosted a close-knit, convivial community, with two shuls and exacting halachic standards.

 

Since a core contingent of the Sunderland community had emigrated as a group from the town of Kretinga in Lithuania, the town’s Jews maintained a staunchly Litvish character.

Mordaunt’s maternal grandfather Reb Chatze Cohen (both his father and mother had the last name Cohen, and so did his future wife), emigrated to England in 1888 with 14 children and was one of those Lithuanian immigrants.

“Zeide had semichah, but he never used it. He was always affectionately known as Reb Chatza. His position in Kretinga was something like town clerk,” says Cohen, whose lilting articulation belie his age, while his soft accent, more musical than the more popular London twang, confirms his Northern British origins.

Mordaunt’s mother was raised in Reb Chatze’s Yiddish-speaking home, and his own cheder education was also in Yiddish. “We went to cheder after school, for about 16 hours a week, and we learned to translate the Chumash, Tanach, Rashi, Shulchan Aruch, and Gemara all into Yiddish.” He’s proud of the bar mitzvah pilpul he gave in Yiddish. “It wasn’t written down and I had to learn it by heart from my rebbi.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 708)

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