The Jewish history of Sunderland easily risks being forgotten as time goes by. On Ryhope road, an empty Synagogue sits as a reminder of the thriving Jewish community the town once had, who moved on in the latter half of the 20th century. Likewise down in Ayre’s Quay, an older Jewish cemetery sits in a state of decay. The historical remnants are there, but the legacies and impact of the people themselves are forgotten.
Mordaunt Cohen (1916-2019) was one such Jewish man who had a decisive impact on Sunderland, a man who was a lawyer, a community figure, educational official and war veteran who was ultimately honoured by the queen.
Born in 1916 during World War I, Cohen grew up in the town of Sunderland and attended Bede School. At the age of 21, he qualified as a solicitor and started up his own business. But of course in 1938, things were changing for the worse in the world. Cohen, as a Jewish man, was deeply shocked and troubled by the fact his fellow people were being persecuted by the Nazis.
A number of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany on the Kindertransprot were housed in a Jewish Refugee Hostel in Sunderland. On deciding to visit them and hearing their stories about the Nazis, Cohen was ultimately inspired by 1940 to enlist the army himself (than being called up) and to fight for the freedom of Jewish people. Cohen was assigned to the Royal Artillery and entered as an officer. His first port of call was Nigeria, where he trained troops under the British Empire and learned to speak in the native West-African language, Hausa. The Africans’ respect for him was so great they called him “the White Muslim”.
After his stationing in Nigeria, Cohen fought in the gruesome Burma campaign against the Empire of Japan, right up until the end of the war. On hearing the news that the war was over in 1945, he celebrated with his comrades with a bottle of brandy. Following the war, he decided to remain in the army and reached the rank of Major, before de-enlisting in 1954 and re-entering the legal practice. For sixty years after, however, he led the 1st AJEX Battalion down Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday.
Cohen married his wife Myrella Bloom (d.2002), not long after, also a distinguished barrister who became one of the first female judges in Britain (the 3rd, to be exact), if you never noticed there is a street in Tunstall named after her, called, Myrella Crescent. The pair became the first couple in Britain to ultimately hold judicial positions at the same time. As a lawyer, Cohen became the chair of Industrial tribunals and represented trade unions.
Extremely active in Sunderland Community life, Mordaunt helped found Sunderland Polytechnic (now Sunderland University) and became one of its inaugural governors. In gratitude for this, he later became one of the first people to receive an honorary fellowship from the University.
In 2017, at the age of 101, Mordaunt finally received the recognition his life deserved, and was awarded an MBE from the Queen. Two years later, he passed away on March 16, 2019 at the Royal Free Hospital in London, aged 102.
Mordaunt was undoubtedly one of the most distinguished Jewish figures ever to emerge from Sunderland. His life and legacy is a reminder that we do not live in parallel communities, or seperate existences, but we ultimately serve the same community and city alike. Cohen was an incredible, larger than life individual who made an enormous contribution to Wearside. While the Jewish community has all but moved on in the present day, we should strive to remember figures such as Mordaunt, than simply looking back on empty buildings.