Judith Benjamin knew her father, Milton Cohen, was scarred by the Second World War. When he returned to Montreal after fighting in Europe, his usually witty, humorous demeanour was often shattered by sudden outbursts of anger. Within a few years, he moved away from his young family.
What Ms. Benjamin didn’t know was that Mr. Cohen had tried to work through his demons in anguished, deeply personal poems written on the front lines and mailed home to a childhood friend, Sam Borer. Mr. Borer’s son, Leonard, found these verses in a stack of letters tied together with a satin ribbon when his father died two years ago. In October, he contacted The Globe and Mail, which ran a story about the find and published three of Mr. Cohen’s poems online.
By coincidence, Ms. Benjamin and her younger half-brother, Robert Frank, were researching their family history at the time. An Internet search turned up the story.
“When I read his poetry, I cried off and on for two days,” she says. “I felt like I’d found him again. It was a wonderful feeling.”
Mr. Cohen and Ms. Benjamin’s mother, Edie, grew up in Montreal’s Jewish community near St. Urbain Street. They married in 1937 and had their first child the next year. Ms. Benjamin was born in 1942, around the time her father went off to war.
When he returned, Ms. Benjamin remembers hiding under a table, so awed was she by his towering presence. Physically fit, Mr. Cohen stood 6 feet 2 inches tall, with thick, dark hair and piercing eyes. He was also energetic, starting a successful business making silk neckties, branded “Rembrandt” after his favourite painter.
“He was very intelligent, he was well-spoken, he could keep you in fits of laughter,” Ms. Benjamin says, describing how he peppered his conversation with colourful metaphors and one-liners. “But this was also coupled with an explosive temper. He was a very, very restless person and he was very tortured.”
In part, he was irritated by a war wound that left one leg longer than the other. His anger also had a psychological source. Among other horrors, Mr. Cohen saw first-hand the brutality of the Nazi concentration camps when he helped liberate one toward the end of the war.
His marriage to Edie ended in 1948. In 1952, he left Montreal, but returned for visits over the next decade.
When Ms. Benjamin married in 1962, she left Mr. Cohen off the guest list, afraid that her stepfather would cancel the wedding if her father was invited. Believing his daughter wanted nothing to do with him, Mr. Cohen disappeared from her life. Ms. Benjamin knows only a little of what he did next. He moved around, living in Mexico for a time, remarried in the 1970s and had at least two more children.
For years, Ms. Benjamin regretted their estrangement, and decided in the 1990s to track him down. A family member put her in touch with Sam Borer. Ms. Benjamin says her father’s old friend – “an incredibly fine gentleman, very sweet and understanding” – was happy to help, inviting her to his house.
He reconnected her with Mr. Cohen, who was living in suburban Vancouver. Time had not slowed him down, and she remembers having trouble keeping up with him as he zipped around town. Incredibly, he was still running the tie company: the shop had burned down a few years earlier, but he restarted his business from scratch in his house.
Mr. Cohen died on Nov. 4, 2000, at the age of 84.
Now, nearly two decades after Sam Borer helped reunite father and daughter, the letters he saved are helping Mr. Cohen’s family gain insight into his life. After reading the Globe story, Ms. Benjamin tracked Leonard Borer down and called him.
“It was something I had hoped for, but it was shocking when she called,” he says. “I was on the ceiling with excitement.”
Mr. Borer copied Mr. Cohen’s letters and sent a package to Ms. Benjamin.
Edie died in 2007. It was at her funeral that, Mr. Frank says, he first noticed an interesting parallel in her life: her own father was gassed while fighting with the British Army during the First World War and left his family around 1929.
“Throughout most of my life and most of Judie’s life, we’ve tended to see [leaving their families]as a bad thing,” he says. “We can now see these men more as victims.”