Literary Detective Looking for the Father She Never Knew
The true story of a prolific publisher killed tragically at 33 and his daughter’s life mission to redeem his literary enterprise from oblivion
Atop many an Israeli garden wall, you’re likely to find a stack of books placed there by someone cleaning out clutter and hoping that some lover of literature will give the books a new home. It was on such a wall that one kind soul found two books whose lurid jackets caught her eye – much as the publisher intended in the 1950s, when the books were new.
That publisher was Yosef Cohen. His company, HaSifriya HaYisraelit (The Israeli Library) managed to put out about 100 titles between 1949 and 1956, before Cohen was killed in the 1956 Sinai Campaign at the age of 33. Through the magic of the Internet, the two aforementioned books were recently returned to his daughter, Dalia Cohen-Gross, professor of Hebrew linguistics at Bar-Ilan University, who has made it her life’s mission to recover as many of her father’s imprints as possible, “to commemorate him and redeem his literary enterprise from oblivion.”
“I was less than three years old when my father died,” Cohen-Gross says, adding that her mother kept none of the HaSifriya HaYisraelit books and, in fact, got rid of all mementos, aside from a box of her father’s medals. “For many years I didn’t deal with the issue of the books. But I got interested in finding out more at the age of 40, after I finished my PhD.”
Cohen-Gross began combing the National Library of Israel’s card catalogues. Searching proved difficult in the 1990s because the cards weren’t listed by publisher, but later the library issued a digitized version on CD.
Cohen-Gross shared the good news with her older brother that the library had nine hardcover books published by HaSifriya HaYisraelit and was surprised to learn from him that their father’s company had a paperback imprint called HaKoreh. “The logo is a rooster because it’s a play on the words ‘ammoperdix’ [sand partridge] and ‘reader,’ which sound alike in Hebrew.”
Having found the paperbacks in the National Library, Cohen-Gross made another discovery: “On the back page of the paperbacks was a list of other titles. And so, the search began in earnest.
“I went to the Jaffa flea market. Used bookstores on Allenby Street. I sat on warehouse floors and went through boxes. I went down to the old Central Bus Station area where his office and the print shop were. I went to the bindery, looking for clues. Book dealers also helped me – they were moved by my personal story and spread the word.”
As the world was going digital, Cohen-Gross decided she needed better data-mining tools. She went back to school for a master’s degree in information science and since then has located about 100 books issued under seven different imprints.
The worldwide web provided an even more surprising boon – her long-lost family. “My mother had cut all ties with the Cohen family. Two years ago, I received an email from a woman whose father was, in fact, my uncle. She found me through the web-page I posted about my father. She gave me four letters my father had written to his brother in 1948 during the Independence War.”
In those letters, Cohen-Gross discovered a young man with a distinct writing style. “He was only 25 years old but you can see that he was very literate, very well-read.”
Born in 1923 in Alexandria, Egypt, to a family whose roots went back generations to Jerusalem and Safed, Yosef Cohen came to pre-state Israel in 1935. He fought in the Armored Corps during the War of Independence. After the State of Israel was declared, Cohen joined the Israel Air Force, and served in the regular army until 1953.
Concurrently, in 1949, Cohen founded HaSifriya HaYisraelit. The company published American, British, German, Italian, French and Russian literature by famous authors such as Gogol, Pirandello and Zola. Their cheesy book-covers, however, featured images of romance and gangsters meant to attract busy passers-by as HaSifriya HaYisraelit books were sold at newsstands and booksellers adjacent to the bus station.
The covers belied the books’ highbrow contents, as did Cohen’s stable of translators: people who went on to become well known literary figures like actress and publisher Miriam Bernstein-Cohen, who received the Israel Prize for Theater in 1975; S. Somekh, professor emeritus of modern Arab literature at Tel Aviv University and 2005 Israel Prize winner, Israeli thinker Menachem Hartom; authors Yeshayahu Levit and Haim Tarsi, and others.
Cohen also published books under the Yuval, Barbour, Makor, Dafdefet and Ma’ayanot imprints. As to the range of imprints, Cohen-Gross can only theorize. “It could have been ad-hoc, or for tax purposes.” Given that almost all of the titles dealing with sex education were published by Ma’ayanot, Cohen-Gross agrees there might have been a thematic reason for the differences.
With the outbreak of conflict in 1956, Cohen volunteered for reserve duty and, tragically, was killed by friendly fire at the very end of the Sinai Campaign. His daughter muses, “It’s amazing that in the short time that the publishing company existed — six or seven years — he was able to publish so much. He was only 33 years old when he died.”
Cohen-Gross is still on the lookout for 25 to 30 titles still unaccounted for. At least two books have been discovered in libraries in the United States, and she is appealing to anyone with information about her father’s work to contact her at Dalia.Cohen-Gross@biu.ac.il.
Books left on a wall in Jerusalem for anyone to take. Photo by Rachel Neiman
Inside the National Library in Jerusalem. Photo by Hadas Parush/ FLASH90
Two of Yosef Cohen’s 1950s books. Photo: courtesy