Hesped (eulogy) for Lt. Col Mordaunt Cohen – given by Saul Taylor, his eldest grandson, on Sunday 17 March:
In a few moments time, our family invites you all, to join us, as we accompany my Grandfather on the beginning of his final journey.
And I think it’s fair to say, that life has been one incredible journey, for Mordechai Ben Yisroel Eliyahu, Lt. Col Mordaunt Cohen MBE.
Born in 1916, in the middle of World War One to Sophie and Israel Cohen, his journey took him from his quiet working town in Sunderland, to the trenches in Burma, to founding Sunderland University, to ultimately an audience with HM the Queen just 9 months ago.
My grandfather died on Shabbat, just as my late grandmother did 16 years ago. The Gemorah teaches us that just as Yosef, Moshe and David Hamelech died on a shabbat, it is something that is reserved for true tzadikim. Both my grandparents were the embodiment of tzadikim and it ran through every part of their lives.
His name was Mordechai, it should be no coincidence that he died the week of Purim. It should also be no coincidence, that he died on Shabbat Zachor, as we remember Amalek. Every generation has their Amalek, even today. Nearly 80 years ago, he stood up, with other brave and courageous men and women, as Amalek reared its head, in the most horrific way.
Growing up as his oldest grandson, I was well aware of his monumental achievements, and I hope, in the next few minutes I am able to do these justice.
But I don’t want to dwell too much on his story, because as it happens, most people here already know it. He made it his life mission, to teach people, about what he and his comrades went through in the war, which thanks to modern technology, has been well documented.
He was a humble, yet proud man. He had a wonderful way of balancing humility, with his pride. I remember once asking him, why he still used the title of Lt. Col. so long after he left the army. He replied, that his surname is Cohen, he wanted the non-Jewish public to know, that the Jewish community played their part in the defence of this country.
One of the questions I often get asked, when people saw him running around Edgware or Netanya was what was his secret? So I would like to talk about the man behind the achievements.
He had an incredible drive, inner strength and determination. He had an iron cast desire to do the right thing, to pursue justice and to better the world. He was a natural born leader, with strong and unshakeable religious pride and values. He had no materialistic aspirations whatsoever, so he used his talents to better the lives of others.
He had a flying start to his legal career, qualifying as a lawyer at age 21 and opening his own practice at 22. However, the brakes were put on this soon after, when duty called.
As a soldier he was unusual, in that he volunteered to join the army, he was not willing to wait to be called up. In 1940 in Sunderland, there was a hostel setup with girls from the Kindertransport. He heard from them first-hand, about the great suffering occurring in Europe and felt it was his duty to serve his country and his people.
The subsequent years took him from an anti aircraft unit near his home in the North East, to officer School at Shrivenham, then to Nigeria. However it was after that, when he went on to India and then Burma, where he experienced his toughest challenge.
The war there was particularly brutal. In addition to fighting the Japanese, he had to fight the tough climatic conditions and tropical disease, including malaria. They were known as the ‘forgotten army’ with little contact with what was happening back home.
However, he persisted and continued to drive his troops and by the end of the war was in administrative control of some 6000 allied soldiers.
Following the war, he was both mentioned in dispatches for distinguished services in the Burma campaign and then later awarded the Territorial Decoration for long distinguished service. Finally leaving the army with the rank of Lt. Col.
On his return to the UK, he threw himself into public service, both in the City of Sunderland and in the Jewish community.
There are many things that I could highlight. His work with AJEX (Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women), the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation, the Board of Deputies where he served for 37 years, leading the Conservative group on Sunderland City Council and becoming an Alderman of the City.
However, one of his proudest achievements was when he negotiated the deal to bring several Sunderland colleges together in 1969, forming the then Sunderland Polytechnic and becoming its first Chairman. That today, is now Sunderland University, an institution with some 19,000 students. It was with some pride that 16 months ago, he was honoured by the University with an honorary fellowship. He addressed a hall of 800 graduates and received a standing ovation.
He enjoyed a very happy, 49 year marriage to my late grandmother. He took such pride in all her professional and communal achievements. Together, they were to make legal history, by becoming the first married couple in the UK, to both hold full time Judicial office.
In his retirement, he and my grandmother left Sunderland and moved to London, to be closer to the family. He then took on the role as Director of the Central Enquiry desk at the board of deputies as a volunteer, for a further 10 years.
However, the role he never retired from, was as a family man.
Both my grandparents loved family. He loved us and we loved him. He used to come to our house in Stanmore every night for dinner since my grandmother passed away and would take an active interest in our lives. He travelled to Israel 5 times a year to visit his family there. As the patriarch of our family, he encouraged us to maximise our potential, contribute to wider society, but always remain true to our Orthodox Jewish heritage. It should be no surprise that three of his Grandchildren are Rabbonim and all are involved in community life, at various places around the Jewish world.
As Chief Rabbi Mirvis said in his tweet earlier today, Mordaunt was a hero. Not only because of his brave service to our country but also because of the lives he moulded & influenced at home. His legacy lives on in the remarkable family he raised, as they follow his example of community service & unwavering commitment to Jewish values
Mordaunt was a hero. Not only because of his brave service to our country but also because of the lives he moulded & influenced at home. His legacy lives on in the remarkable family he raised as they follow his example of community service & unwavering commitment to Jewish values https://t.co/NNpFEt8dwG
— Chief Rabbi Mirvis (@chiefrabbi) March 17, 2019
He had a deep love for Israel, having bought a home there over 30 years ago. He was one of the founding members of the Young Israel of North Netanya. It was no surprise when he and my Grandmother told us that they had bought burial plots on Har Hamenuchot. Where they will shortly be reunited.
In his final year at Sage, where his health slowly deteriorated, he remained single minded, particularly with respect to his religious observance. He was a deeply religious man and remained so until the end. He has such pride, in knowing that all his direct descendants, live Torah lives.
At this point I also want to pay tribute to my Mother, his carer Ferdie and all the staff at SAGE, who always ensured he had the highest possible levels of care.
His varied life experiences produced many stories. I would like to end by giving over possibly his favourite anecdote. It is probable that most of you already know it, but I’m going to say it, because I think, this is how I feel he would like to be remembered.
In 1942 his Jewish troops were unable to get leave for Yom Kippur. He sent a message to England, to send for Machzorim. Unfortunately, the ship carrying them was torpedoed, so they never arrived. He and his friend Dr. Bernard Homa, wrote Kol Nidrei from memory. He kept the copy and at the end of the war, checked against a machzor and there were just three mistakes. Every year since, he put a copy in his Yom Kippur machzor. The original, along with his uniform and other artefacts are now in the Jewish War Museum in London.
In the beginning of this weeks parsha, we learn that the fire on the alter must be constantly burning. It was the job of the Kohen, to make sure that the fire was always burning, by placing two wooden logs, every morning and evening.
So for my Mother and Father, Uncle Jeffrey and Auntie Ros, Rabbi Simon and Leanne, Rabbi Sam and Emma, Sarah and Rabbi James, Orly, Tehilla, Netanel, Yoel, Tzvi, Ashi, Elya, Yishai, Simcha, Aharon, Miri, Leah, Yona, Naftali, Sruli and Rina. It is now our job, as a family and as a community, to keep the fire of Mordechai Ben Yisrael Eliyahu burning.