Abraham Albert Cohen, born August 16, 1895, has one of the most interesting biographies I have ever come across. He was born in Corfu, Greece into a Ramaniote Jewish family. Okay, raise your hand if you’d ever heard of Ramaniote Jews. Me neither. This group of Greek Jews was not particularly numerous before World War II, and they were almost totally wiped out during the Nazi occupation of Greece.
Cohen’s family was in the soap business, and they immigrated to Marseille, France (home of very good soap) when he was a child and he remained there until he moved to Geneva in 1914 where he studied both law and literature. He became the editor of the Revue Juive (Jewish Review) which had contributors such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. During World War II, he fled first to Bordeaux and then London where he worked on behalf of Jewish refugees. He was offered a position as Ambassador for the newly created nation of Israel, but he turned it down in order to concentrate on writing.
His work is highly autobiographical – the story of a man who, like Cohen, works for the League of Nations and is sometimes conflicted between his Jewish origins and status. His masterpiece Belle du Seigneur (Beauty of the Lord), written in 1968, won the Grand Prix du roman of the Académie Française has been listed as one of the 100 Books of the century by Le Monde newspaper. Albert Cohen died in Geneva in 1981. Unfortunately, the kind of anti-Semitism that Cohen fought against in the League of Nations is alive and well. A page dedicated to this book in Wikipedia was removed as the content was “Kill the Jews.” That is totally sick.
Today’s expression, passer sous les fourches caudines, (passay sue lay foorsh cawdeen) means to suffer through a difficult, often humiliating experience, perhaps the way the Jews like Albert Cohen have suffered. It comes from a battle of the same name in 321 BC between the Romans and the Samnites in which the Samnites kicked butt, much to the humiliation of the Romans. It is now used in French to refer to a particularly difficult experience, though not necessarily one’s own fault as was the case for the Romans at Fourches Caudines.