Although my parents did not talk very much about their ancestors or families when I was a child, one of the claims my father often made with pride was that his great-uncle had been the governor of New Mexico. I used to find this both amusing and irrelevant. A seemingly distant relative who died 20 years before I was born? Why would I care about that? And New Mexico? How could we possibly have a relative—a Jewish relative—who came from New Mexico? We were from New York and Philadelphia—we were not from the Southwest; we were not cowboys. Who was this relative, and how in the world did he get to be a governor? It all seemed rather preposterous—like saying we were descended from Napoleon or George Washington.
Not that I doubted that my father was telling the truth. It just seemed unimportant to me—until I started to delve into my family’s history. As I started to research and read about this side of my family, I realized how remarkable and interesting a story it is and what a uniquely American story it is. But before I get to that story, I need to begin at the end and explain how the story of the New Mexican Seligmans is part of my family’s story.
I have written quite a bit about my great-grandparents, Emanuel and Eva M. Cohen, and in particular about my great-grandmother Eva. You may recall that it was Emanuel and Eva who took in Emanuel’s brother Isaac and his teenage son when Isaac’s wife died. It was Emanuel and Eva who opened their home for Emanuel’s uncle Jonas’ funeral. And it was Eva who took care of my father and his sister for almost ten years when my grandparents were both unable to do so. Both my father and his cousin Marjorie have described Eva as the sweetest, most loving, and kindest woman.
Eva was a Seligman, the daughter of Bernard Seligman and Frances Nusbaum. She was born in 1866 in Philadelphia, but moved with her parents to Santa Fe, New Mexico when she was a young girl. She returned east to go to Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia, and while there, she met Emanuel Cohen and married him in 1886 when she was only twenty years old.
(Matrimony Notice, Friday, February 5, 1886, Jewish Messenger (New York, NY) Volume: 59 Issue: 6 Page: 6)
Together she and Emanuel had four sons, one of whom, Herbert, died as a toddler. Their son Maurice ended his own life after suffering from cancer, and their son John, my grandfather, was disabled by multiple sclerosis as a young man when my father was just a little boy. So Eva endured more than her fair share of tragedy, yet somehow she remained a positive and loving person who seemed to have an incredible ability to care for others.
One of my great disappointments was not having a photograph of Eva. She wrote inscriptions on many of the photographs I have of my father and his sister, but she must have been taking many of the pictures and thus is not in any of those in my family’s collection. I suppose that is consistent with what I know about her—someone who was focused on others and not on herself.
My father and his cousin Marjorie are the only surviving grandchildren of Eva and Emanuel Cohen, and my siblings and I are the only great-grandchildren. In the last few weeks, I’ve been very fortunate to receive from Marjorie’s maternal cousin Lou a number of photographs of Marjorie and others, and I was thrilled to be able to see the face of the woman with whom I’d had such wonderful conversations this summer. Below are several photographs of Marjorie as a child and as a young woman, including some with and of her parents Stanley and Bess Cohen.
Included in that group of photographs was a photograph that Lou had labeled as Bess and Stanley 1923, but when I showed it to my father, he said that it was his parents, John and Eva (Schoenthal) Cohen. When I compared it to the only other photograph I have of my grandparents together, it was obvious that this was John and Eva, not Stanley and Bess. I was delighted to have another picture of my grandparents.
Also mixed into the group of photos from Marjorie’s cousin Lou were a few taken in Atlantic City during the summer of 1932 that finally allow me to see the face of my great-grandmother Eva Seligman Cohen. I will post those in a later post.