By Helene Schwartz Kenvin
When I first began research into my Cohen-family history in 1976, I chose to ignore the documents and concentrate on getting information from cousins who then were in their eighties and nineties, figuring that the documents were more likely to be around in future than the cousins. Several of these 19th-century-born cousins had spoken about their “Uncle Hesch,” as they called their grandfather Alexander Cohen’s brother Harris. After years of searching for Harris Cohen’s descendants with no success, in 1998 I saw this email on the JewishGen Discussion Group:
I am posting this for my cousin’s husband, who is the great-grandson of Harris and Betsy COHEN of NYC. Their children included George (b. 1864), Louis (b. 1866), Alex (b. 1868), David (b. 1871), Essie (b. 1873), Delia (b. 1875), Annie (b. 1876), and Sarah (b. 1879). If you recognize any of these names, please send a message to me.
Cohen is a nightmare from a genealogical point of view (because it is such a common surname), so I answer your posting about Harris Cohen with excitement. If we have made a hit, I have been looking for this branch of our family for some 20 years. My Harris Cohen was born around 1841-42. Among his children were George (a vet in NYC); Annie (who may have married a man named Rosenberg); and Essie. Do we have a match?
The author of the original post on the discussion group put me in touch with the man on whose behalf he had made the query. “George Cohen, the veterinarian, was my grandfather,” wrote Jack Carter (born Cohen) “and was one of Harris Cohen’s eight children.” I replied:
I am not 100% sure that we are related, but there are enough coincidences to make it a possibility. My Harris Cohen (known as Uncle Hesch) was the son of Abraham and Jeannette Cohen and brother of my great-grandfather Alexander. If we are third cousins, I have a big family tree for you of Alexander’s descendants… I found a record of a Harris Cohen of 75 Mott Street (in Manhattan) who married Jetta (the German spelling of Yetta) Green on March 4, 1862. If your George was their oldest son, an 1862 marriage for his parents would make sense with his 1864 birthdate. I am optimistic because it is unlikely that there were two George Cohens who were vets with fathers named Harris and because your George and Harris were born in the “right” years.
One critical detail about our respective families was not a match and that concerned both Jack and me. He insisted that the wife of his great-grandfather Harris Cohen was named Betsy; but I had documentary proof (their marriage record, amongst other things) that “my” Harris’s wife was named Jetta (Anglicized to Yetta).
Ten days after our initial contact, my mind jolted as I remembered something I had found some thirteen years before. I searched my old notebooks and then wrote triumphantly to Jack :
Years ago, I saw the record in the NYC Municipal Archive of the marriage of Harris Cohen’s daughter Ella (Nellie) to Louis Gans. I just looked at my notes, which say: ‘Bride’s parents: Harris Cohen/Yetta (Betsy is crossed out).’ How about that!”
It would appear that Harris’s wife was born Yetta (or Jetta, as it was spelled in German), but was known as Betsy — perhaps to differentiate her from her brother-in-law Alexander’s wife, who also was named Yetta, or just because she or Harris preferred the name Betsy. I was pretty sure that Jack and I were cousins, but he still was dubious.
Jack wrote that he remembered visiting the veterinary office of his grandfather George Cohen “on East 60th Street near First Avenue,” near the 59th Street bridge. I was exultant. “I now have no doubt that we are related: My elderly cousins all remembered that Harris’s son George-the-vet had an office in the East 60s.” Jack remained skeptical. “No one here has any recollection of ever hearing about a brother of Harris Cohen.” I noted that “the 1860 census recorded Abraham Cohen as living in Manhattan with (his sons) Alex and Harris,” but Jack still was not convinced that we were talking about the same family. I suggested that he order a copy of Harris’s death certificate, which might contain the names of his parents. “I am certain that we are related,” I said.
A few weeks later, Jack sent an email saying that he had just spoken to a cousin of his “…who remembers that Harris had brothers. Your persistence is paying off. Thanks for your tenacity.” “I guess you’re stuck with me,” I replied. “I’ve known for weeks that we are cousins and chuckled at the charming ‘thanks for your tenacity’ in your prior note.” Then I told him: “Now that we know for sure that we are cousins, you can go back further on your family tree. Your (and my) great-great-grandparents were Abraham Cohen and Jeannette Schneider.”
More than two months after we first had connected thanks to JewishGen, Jack received a copy of Harris Cohen’s death certificate. It named Harris’s parents as Abraham and Jeannette Cohen. Even Jack-the-skeptic now was convinced that we were related. That summer, I went to the IAJGS conference in Los Angeles. I spent a lovely afternoon at Jack’s home, where I met with other cousins from the Harris branch. We exchanged photographs and family stories as we reunited the descendants of Harris and Alexander Cohen who had been separated for more than one hundred years .
Delray Beach, Florida, USA
This story originally was published in A Gathering of Cohens: Descendants of Abraham Cohen of Gnesen, Prussia and 19th-Century New York, copyright © 2014 by Helene Schwartz Kenvin. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Editor’s Research Notes and Hints
Helene heard family stories about her great-great-uncle Harris and obtained some vital records concerning him, but she was unsuccessful in connecting with his living descendants. This changed when she saw an email about Harris Cohen on JewishGen’s Discussion Group, which is an excellent resource for posting inquiries and sharing information pertinent to your research.
Ultimately, however, it was a marriage record, a death certificate, and a series of email exchanges that proved the family connection between Helene and her newly found cousin, Jack.