Who are you, Henryka Cohn?


The first time I met Henryka Cohn was at September 2014, at the Leopold Museum, Vienna. The picture “Portrait of Henryka Cohn”, by Richard Gerstl, is represented at the museum along with  many other masterpieces of Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and many other Austrian leading  painters who worked and lived at Vienna in the beginning of the 20th century.

The portrait caught my eye immediately. My grandmother, Gizela Cohn-Weinreich, who lived at Vienna at that time,  was at the same age of Henryka. Did they know each other? Did they ever meet? Is Henryka have any relationship to my family?

The story of my grandmother Gizela is told in my father’s book, That’s how it happened (https://sites.google.com/site/dancarmeleng/). She was born in Galitzia, a province of the Austrian Empire, to her mother, Hannah. Hanna had come from Galitzia to Vienna in order to study medicine. To support herself, she worked for the Cohn family as a baby-sitter and maid. The Cohns were a very wealthy Jewish Sephardic family that dealt in diamonds. One of the family sons, Don, fell in love with Hannah and married her against his parent’s wishes.  This caused a huge scandal in the Jewish high society of Vienna. How could the son of a rich noble Sephardic family marry a poor servant girl from Galitzia? The Cohns disinherited their son and sent the young couple away from their home, cutting off all contact with them. Don returned with Hannah to her parents in Galitzia, where they had two children: Michael, born in 1885, and Gisela, born in 1886. Don, the young father, never got used to the poor and hard life in Galitzia, and died right after Gisela was born.  Hannah, a young widow with two small children, decided to return to Vienna. She gave up the idea of a university education, studied to become a certified midwife, and supported her family in this profession.

Gisela graduated from high school with honors, and wanted to study medicine like her mother, years ago.  Because she had to help her family, she could not pursue this dream. Instead of going to the University, she went to a business school.  After graduating, she got a job to support the family. Although she worked for long hours, she had an active social life and took part in the cultural events that flowered in Vienna during these years. She went to the opera, to concerts, and to plays, and attended social gatherings. The comfort life of Viennese Jews came to end with the German Anschluss in 1938. Gizela was murdered in Auschwitz, with her husband Moshe, in 1943.

No much is known about Henryka, However, we know much more about the painter. Richard Gerstl (1883-1908) was an Austrian painter known for his expressive psychologically insightful portraits. In 1898, at the age of fifteen, Gerstl was accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts. Around 1907, he began to associate with the famous composer Arnold Schoenberg. During this time, Gerstl painted several portraits of Schoenberg, his family, and his friends. These portraits also included paintings of Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, who became extremely close and, in the summer of 1908, she left her husband and children to travel with Gerstl. Schoenberg was in the midst of composing his Second String Quartet, which he dedicated to her. Mathilde rejoined her husband in October. Distraught by the loss of Mathilde, his isolation from his associates, and his lack of artistic acceptance, Gerstl entered his studio during the night of 4 November 1908 and apparently burned every letter and piece of paper he could find. Although many paintings survived the fire, it is believed that a great deal of his artwork as well as personal papers and letters were destroyed. Other than his paintings, only eight drawings are known to have survived unscathed. Following the burning of his papers, Gerstl hanged himself in front of the studio mirror and somehow managed to stab himself as well.

One of Gerstl paintings that survived was the portrait of Henryka Cohn. Following Henryka trails I approached Dr. Raymond Coffer from the University of London, who studied Gerstl work as part of his PhD thesis (http://www.richardgerstl.com/the-story). Coffer kindly let me know that Henryka’s father was Hugo Cohn and her mother, he believes, was Rivka (Regine) Uiberall. She was born at March 11, 1877, and the family moved from Rzeszow in Galicia, now Poland, when she was 3, to Vienna and settled at Esterhazygasse 23 in Vienna’s 6th District of Mariahilfestrasse. She never married and left Vienna on May 13, 1939, to England, where she lived until she died.

During her life in Viena, Henryka was an artist and piano teacher and a member of the Schonberg’s circle. Coffer cites one of her relatives: “… apart from being a “progressive and independent woman […] brought up in an atmosphere of considerable wealth. In a  cultured  and  assimilated  Viennese  Jewish  family,  she  was  a  “highly-regarded  […] music  teacher”,  who taught  singing,  piano  and actors.  Henryka  was also related to Gustav Mahler “and mixed freely in that society,” which may have accounted for  her connection to Schonberg, of whose circle she was an apparently confirmed member and to whom she sent a Christmas/New Year card after the Schonbergs moved to Berlin in 1911. It is highly possible, therefore, that Henryka’s portrait might have been the last  initiated by Schonberg. The work can  probably be ascribed to June 1908, presumably before Gerstl left Vienna on 27th, for it is doubtful that he would have been welcome into the households of Schonberg  after the denouement.

So the puzzle is almost solved. Henryka and Gizela, also sharing the same sure name, and also having very common history, were not relative after all. When I showed my father Henryka’s portrait, his immediate response was that she reminds him his cousin Lea Cohn (Michael’s daughter) who were murdered in Yugoslavia in WWII (see picture below). However, he does not remember any relative named Henryka from his childhood in Vienna. My grandmother roots belong to the Sephardic Cohn family from Vienna while Henryka roots belong to a Cohn family from Galitzia. Whether they knew each other? probably, however we do not have any evidence for that. Anyway, I’ve already decided to adopt Henryka as my new great-aunt.


Lea Cohn (Yugoslavia, 1941)

3 thoughts on “Who are you, Henryka Cohn?

  1. That’s how a story begins… In my new novel Two Princes and a Queen, the trigger to the plot is a picture the hero finds in New York Times . The picture reminds him of his grandmother Louisa , who was born in Austria before being married to my grandfather Emil David. She move with him to Belgrad , He was looking after his career as an architect, later on , few of the most famous municipal buildings in Beograd were his. Teir story together with 1100 others from Ausrria and Germany is told in the new novel that is going to be published end of June.

  2. Hi David,
    Henryka was MY great aunt! My (half) brother Ashwin Maini has done a lot of genealogical research and I am sure could fill in all the gaps for you if you are interested. There is some evidence that the painting was given to Henryka (apparently there is a note to her on the back) and of course ended up in the museum by the route so much of this art took. She had a younger sister and an older and younger brother (that youngest being my grandfather Ludwig.) This sister died before the Holocaust, my grandfather (who was in Munich) took his family to Italy in 1933 then South Africa and moved to England when his daughter (my mother) moved and married. His oldest brother Rickard and brother’s wife did not leave Vienna in time and died in the death camps. Henryka moved to England sponsored by the Abbott Toy company family, and with her childhood nurse (who was not Jewish but stayed with the family). She taught Michael Cacoyannis voice projection among other things and seemed to be a devotee of yoga, Indian dancing etc. A fascinating character I would love to have known!

  3. Thanks Linda,

    The most details we get on your great aunt, Henryka, the more it clears what a great person she was. I believe that Gerstl portrait makes justice to her beauty and kindness. Looking at the picture always reminds me the great life in Vienna where our families used to live, before the holocaust.

    I wish you all the best and happy new year.

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