A Sephardic Family Reunites to Remember the Past
Then & NowCommunity

A Sephardic Family Reunites to Remember the Past

Family dinner in Dunwoody recalls a family history that has its roots in the eastern Mediterranean.

(From left) Solomon Cohen, Albert Cohen, Albert Barrocas and Dan Maslia. They are four family members who have helped create a long history of the Sephardic Cohen family.
(From left) Solomon Cohen, Albert Cohen, Albert Barrocas and Dan Maslia. They are four family members who have helped create a long history of the Sephardic Cohen family.

On a recent Thursday evening this month, nearly three dozen descendants of Abraham Cohen gathered for a family dinner at Dunwoody’s Eclipse de Luna tapas restaurant. They came together to honor a historical family patriarch who died decades ago but came with a history that goes back to the Spanish Inquisition.

So, what most of the family was consuming on that evening in Dunwoody was not just the restaurant’s Spanish delicacies, but the sense of history to which they found themselves connected again.

One of them, Luna Cygielman, remembered how the family had gathered in the past. There had been major family reunions in 1980 and in 1992, the 400th anniversary of the Spanish exile. The events brought family members together from around the country for a weekend of renewing old relationships and starting new ones. This month’s dinner was for a much smaller group, but as Cygielman pointed out, it was just as important.

“I think if we don’t do this, everybody will get dispersed and go on their separate way,” she said. “This is where we come from. And deep in your heart, you have this Sephardic thing in you, and you have your Cohen family in you, and it’s your world. It’s your roots.”

A family portrait of Abraham Cohen’s descendants today, with a 20-foot-long scroll of the family tree.

The food that night was a reminder that 430 years ago the Jews of Spain carried their Hebrew dialect of Spanish, “ladino,” and their Spanish culture throughout the Mediterranean. Many of them found a welcoming refuge in Turkey, where the Islamic Ottoman Empire was expanding rapidly.

Centuries later, in the first decades of the 20th century when war broke out between Turkey and the Balkan states of Southern Europe, some of the Jews, fearing their sons would be conscripted, moved again. They made the long journey across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean to America or to Spanish-speaking Cuba, where the ladino they spoke made it easy to establish businesses and fit into the local community.

This is where we all were. It’s a glimpse of all those people in another era. It’s our history as Jews.

Among them was Abraham Cohen, who fled from the Jewish community in Izmir in 1908 with his older son, Victor, to Havana, where he opened a restaurant. He brought the rest of his family and a nephew to the island in 1913.

After World War I, Abraham Cohen moved to Atlanta with his wife and several of his children. Many years before, in 1914, the Sephardic community in Atlanta had started to put down roots. Two competing synagogues, one for Turkish Jews and another for those from the Greek island of Rhodes, merged into one, forming Congregation OrVe Shalom.

A partially faded and tattered photograph from 1920 is one of the few pictures that survives of Abraham Cohen (seated) and his family.

There were a number of social and benevolent organizations that paralleled what had been set up by their German and Eastern European neighbors.

A faded and tattered photograph taken in Atlanta in 1920 shows a dour and serious-minded Abraham with his equally sober wife standing behind him surrounded by several of their children. He was said to have had 12 children in all.

A daughter, Luna, and her husband, Isaac Barrocas, who remained behind in Cuba, have been edited by the studio photographer into one side of the large portrait.

In the same year Abraham Cohen sat for his family photograph in Atlanta, 65 Sephardic families were here, and their synagogue had just moved into its first permanent home.

Today, Luna and Isaac’s son, Albert Barrocas, a retired surgeon and hospital administrator, is an active family historian. He has helped put together an elaborate family tree with over a dozen branches.

He has written about how, as late as the 1940s and 1950s, the Cohen family was still a closely-knit family unit. They all lived not far from one another on a single block of Central Avenue in southwest Atlanta.

“At 475 Central Avenue, downstairs was where the Maslia family, lived. They were part of the Cohens. Upstairs lived Morris and Rose Cohen. Next to them lived the Henry and Stella Maslia family, and Catherine Cohen; and so it went down the street. In 1954, when I first arrived from Cuba, we lived in the same home at 475 Central Avenue that the Maslias had lived before.”

A detailed map of the Sephardic community has been painstakingly assembled by David Maslia and a committee of family members. They combed records at the Atlanta History Center and the William Breman Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum and enlisted the aid of historians from Georgia State University and Emory University.

As Maslia recalled for the Atlanta Jewish Times four years ago, they were able to create a portrait of 150 members of their Sephardic synagogue and 425 businesses that date back to 1918. The effort, which involved over 500 pages of research and took more than three years to complete, is a unique record, not only of his own family but of his community, which remains, in one way or another, tied to its past.

“This is where we all were. It’s a glimpse of all those people in another era. It’s our history as Jews.”

read more: