My first encounter with Adrian Victor Cohen was in November 2018. Towards the end of an oral history interview with a member of the Cardiff United Synagogue, we were shown ‘The Melcher, Zak and Cohen Family History’, written by him in 1999. We borrowed the document and I took it home to read.
I was immediately impressed by the thoroughness and detail shown by the author. The document described the history of his family. Unlike conventionally written history, it was written in the first person and rather than just referring to documents, he included images so the reader could actually see what he was referring to. It was obvious that all the content had been carefully considered and evaluated. It was the best researched and documented history I have read.
It included the history of Abraham Melcher and his family in Cardiff from the 1880s. It covered the development of the East Terrace synagogue, the move to Cathedral Road and the secession of Edward Place (later Windsor Place). He also discusses Israel Cohen of Pentre, his Cohen grandparents in Ferndale, and the subsequent family. Adrian Cohen is open about his sympathies – his family were among the leaders of the secession – but even-handed. There is a moving chapter where he discusses the death of his uncle Lieutenant Aaron Simon Cohen who was killed in WW1.
East Terrace Synagogue.
Courtesy of Adrian Cohen.
I needed permission to use his photograph of East Terrace synagogue, so I attempted to track him down. The document had a London address on the first page, but I was unable to contact him through that, even after making enquiries of a local synagogue. Because it is a family history, it included details of his family including their married names. Eventually I was able to locate what seems like a good match for one of his daughters on LinkedIn and sent her a message. She informed me that her father was now resident in a nursing home in Cheshire and although his eyesight was poor, he was keen on keeping his brain active. It was arranged that I would ring him up.
I phoned Adrian. He explained that he was aged 90, in a wheelchair, living in a care home with his wife. He said he had been brought up in Cardiff; his mother was from London but his father was from Cardiff. He attended Cardiff High School in Newport Road, went to Cambridge University where he studied natural science. He has a PhD in nuclear physics, worked for the Atomic Energy Authority and then joined the Civil Service (MoD). He also worked in the Cabinet Office and Health & Safety Executive. No wonder that his history combines the rigour of a nuclear scientist and the inquisitiveness of an investigator with the imagination of a historian.
He said that a copy of his “The Melcher, Zak and Cohen family history” (one of a number of documents he worked on when he retired) had been deposited with the Jewish Genealogical Society of GB. He explained that Melcher went to Windsor Place Synagogue because they did not like Cathedral Road – it had a choir and the bimah was in the wrong place.
I asked him if we could have permission to use the family history and he said he was happy for us to use any of it. He was “perfectly happy and only too delighted” (I told him I would quote that) to assist us. Unfortunately, he no longer had any of the photographs copied in the document.
His history was helpful in untangling 19th century synagogue history and was our only source for The Great Circumcision Debate, enabling us to find the original letters. His discussion of Highfield Cemetery led us to question the plaque on the cemetery wall and the date of the first burial. His comments on pawnbroking were enlightening.
In July his daughter emailed me to tell me that he has passed away. She wrote, “He spoke very fondly of the engaging chat which he had with you a couple of years ago, and greatly enjoyed hearing about your work, and talking about the aspects which he had written about / knew about from his childhood.” I was also amazed when his other daughter mentioned the Cardiff Jewish Heritage Trail at his funeral.
Although I had only spoken to him once, I found him very engaging, curious, intelligent and down to earth. I was enormously impressed by his history and it is obvious that when he passed away, we lost a remarkable man, to whose memory the Cardiff Jewish Heritage Trail is now dedicated.
Written by Mike Hawkins, JHASW/CHIDC volunteer.