A guest post by Beth Arscott and Alix Nicolas
The year: 1932, the place: Paris. A well-known German author dies in a little-known corner of the city, Rue Rémy de Gourmont. 70 years later, and Paul Cohen-Portheim has faded into such obscurity that the circumstances of his death and even his final resting place are shrouded in mystery.
Although little is known about his death, he was well documented in life. Born in Germany to Jewish parents, Cohen-Portheim spent his life travelling for artistic and literary inspiration, and was described as ‘the first citizen of Western Europe’ in the obituary in the Observer of 16 October 1932.
His writings included an autobiographical memoir about his internment in British camps during the First World War and travel books about some of his most loved haunts, London and Paris. Fittingly, the cosmopolitan Cohen-Portheim died in Paris while away from a registered home in England after falling ill during his travels in Spain and Portugal. He died on the 6 October 1932 at the age of 53.
Paul Heinrich Cohen, who would later go by Paul Cohen-Portheim, was born in Berlin on 22 March 1879 to Jewish parents, Ernst and Jenny Cohen (née Porges von Portheim). Little is known of Ernst Cohen, but Jenny was a descendent of a large German manufacturing family, of minor noble status. Paul had an older sister, Helene Henriette (*1876), and a younger brother, Otto Heinrich (*1883).
The young Cohen-Portheim worked as a painter and travelled through Europe for inspiration, including to England. It was during one of his stays in the country that the First World War broke out, and he was arrested and imprisoned as an “enemy alien” at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man and in Lofthouse Park internment camp.
Following his release in 1918, Cohen-Portheim began his career as a published writer. Among others, he wrote a book about his experiences as an internee during the war, entitled Time Stood Still: My Internment in England 1914-1918 (1931). His years of confinement did not dampen his enthusiasm for the country; he was familiar with England and the English way of life and wrote two books on the subject in German which were subsequently translated: England: The Unknown Isle (1930) and The Spirit of London (1935). Indeed, Cohen-Portheim’s Anglophile interests were reflected in his personal life; at the time of his death, 19 Guilford Street in London was listed as his residence on the death certificate.
With the help of Corinna Meiß of Woerteragentur we could start our research with basic family information about Paul Cohen-Portheim: the names of his parents and siblings and the date of his birth.
Using the genealogy website Ancestry, we found Cohen-Portheim’s death certificate. As he died in Paris, this was written in French and certified by the local mayor’s office. The death certificate contained the following information:
Name: Paul Cohen
Date of Death: 4th October 1932, 11pm
Place of Death: 18 Rue Rémy de Gourmont, 19th Arrondissement
Address: 19 Guilford Street London, England
Date of Birth: 22nd March 1879
Place of Birth: Berlin, Germany
Parents: Ernest Cohen and Jennie Cohen, both deceased
Marital Status: Single
Written: 6th October 1932
On this death certificate, he was listed as Paul Cohen, but we were confident that it was the correct document due to the matching names of his parents and date of his birth. Oddly, however, the certificate describes him as a voyageur de commerce (travelling salesman), which does not fit with what we know of his professional life as an author and translator. This led us to speculate that Cohen-Portheim might have died surrounded by unfamiliar people who had to make certain assumptions about his life.
Obituaries for Cohen-Portheim were published in several British newspapers. The Observer detailed the circumstances of his death, stating that he
‘fell desperately ill, with fever and complications, in Portugal. For some days he lay in a Portuguese hospital unable to move and surrounded by people who, as he wrote later, either couldn’t or wouldn’t understand a word he said. He was moved to Paris, a journey of two days and two nights, with a peasant to lift him in and out of trains at the five changes. It soon became clear to his doctors that there was no hope of his recovery and death came to him mercifully.’
The extent to which this information was reliable is questionable. And neither this obituary, nor others found in the Yorkshire Post or Evening Telegraph, gave details of his funeral arrangements or burial. This meant that there remained several places where Cohen-Portheim could have been buried.
At the time of his death he had a residence in London, but before his internment in 1914, he had had an apartment in Paris, and it was to that city which he returned as his health failed during his Iberian travels. In the inter-war years he spent time in Berlin, where he had family and where his German publishers were located. Furthermore, members of his family are buried as far afield as Vienna and Prague.
As Cohen-Portheim was unmarried, we thought it possible that he could have been buried with his parents. As a result, we searched civic death registers, city archives and Jewish memorials for traces of both him and his parents. We were unsuccessful at first, but by chance we came across a family history website dedicated to the Porges von Portheim family, through which we discovered the sisters of Paul Cohen-Portheim’s mother. One of her sisters, Clara, married Philip Goldschmidt, and the two are buried together in the Jewish part of the Central Cemetery in Vienna. More family members are buried in Prague. This opens up two further possibilities for Paul Cohen-Portheim’s burial place.
Join us in our search!
We are trying to locate Paul Cohen-Portheim’s grave or records of his burial. The most likely location would be Paris, but London, Berlin and Vienna are further possibilities. Both Jewish and secular cemeteries could be considered.
Cohen-Portheim died in 1932, mere months before Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. During Nazism and the Holocaust, members of Cohen-Portheim’s family were persecuted and murdered. This may have resulted in the destruction of family records and documents.
Things to remember:
Paul Cohen-Portheim may be listed simply as Paul Cohen on official documents.
Questions that remain unanswered:
Where was Paul Cohen-Portheim buried?
Was he buried under the name Paul Cohen or Paul Cohen-Portheim?
What did he die of and what were the circumstances of his death?
Have any personal documents or family archives survived?
We would like to hear from if you have any further information.