BATH — He grew up in the City of Ships more than 60 years ago, early enough to know the first generation of Jewish immigrants who eked out a living for themselves in the Mid-Coast. Next weekend, Nathan Cogan will return to his native city to discuss the culture of his kinsmen.
Accompanied by his twin sisters, Ann and Janet, Cogan will be part of a panel discussion, “The Jewish Immigrants of Bath, 1900-1960,” at Beth Israel Congregation at 862 Washington St. at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 13. Lon Povich, who descends from Bath merchant Morris Povich, will moderate the talk, where other residents past and present will share their memories of Bath.
The discussion precedes the Jewish High Holidays, which begin with Rosh Hashanah at sundown on Friday, Sept. 18, and conclude with Yom Kippur from sundown Sunday, Sept. 27, through Monday, Sept. 28.
Cogan, professor emeritus of English at Portland State University in Oregon, has also completed an updated memoir of his memories of growing up Jewish in Bath, copies of which he plans to distribute at the discussion.
“One of the things I’d wanted was a memoir that would address something approaching a history of the (Jewish) families that originally pioneered in Bath from the old country, and I wanted to emphasize some bio stuff, anecdotes, stuff that would bring them alive,” Cogan said last week.
Cogan said he would also like to involve the synagogue in collecting memorabilia of Jewish culture in the area, a process through which he suggested it could work with the Maine Historical Society.
“What I’m trying to do is locate the lives of about 18 families and to present my own,” he said. “I’m very heavy into the history of my own family: dates, and the whole shooting match. I think there’s just not very much information that the synagogue has in coherent form.”
Cogan was born in Bath in 1937 and lived here until he enrolled at Bowdoin College in 1955. After a year he left Bowdoin for Reed College in Oregon. His sisters also left for other states in 1955 because of the poor economic climate in Maine.
“From the first 18 families it boiled down to about three families, say by the 1960s,” Cogan said. “… You had a kind of Diaspora out of Bath.”
Cogan remembers a Jewish community that ate kichel (egg-and-sugar cookies) and herring, as well as schnapps at the shul, or synagogue. He recalls a sense of camaraderie in the first and second generations, among his parents and other Jewish families. There were the elders like the Cohens and Petlocks, as well as others he knew not just through the shul but through Bath’s commercial realm, such as the Ariks, Browns, Greenblatts, Gedimans, Goldsteins, Levins (or Levines), Mikelskys, Millers, Poviches, Prawers, Rubins, Smiths and Ziblatts, as well as the Singers of Brunswick.
Those families flocked to Bath’s shores largely between 1886 and 1935, and Cogan’s maternal grandfather, Nathan Petlock, arrived from Lithuania in 1904. Cogan’s father, Morris Cohen – the family went by Kagan, Cohen and Cogan – arrived in Bath from Germany in 1914 following the outbreak of World War I, and he served as the first cantor at Beth Israel and as the city’s Jewish spiritual leader for 30 years, Cogan said.
Cohen married Dora Petlock in 1917 in a hall above Hallett’s Drugstore on Front Street.
“It was an ideal immigrant marriage between the oldest and prettiest daughter of a shtetl peddler and this handsome, Yeshiva-trained incipient middle-class cantor who by the 1920s could buy Rodkinson’s 10-volume Talmud in English, a Victrola and a Buick,” Cogan explains in his memoir.
“Most of the families that came over were ‘orthodox,'” Cogan said. “They came out of orthodox Jewish families in eastern Europe, where they were pretty strict about their laws of eating, their prayers and so forth, so they had a kind of a coherent cultural center. And I also wanted to really emphasize how important it was to get from the old country not only to the new, but to create (Beth Israel) synagogue in 1922. It was a huge symbolic event for a lot of the early families.”
The tremendous suffering of Jewish populations throughout Europe during World War II sent ripples thousands of miles away to Cogan’s hometown.
“We knew that my father’s family had been murdered when the Red Cross reported that at the end of 1945, beginning of ’46,” he said, adding that he had lost an aunt, an uncle, six cousins and a step-grandmother.
“The war in Lithuania started on June 22, 1941,” Cogan said. “And something like 75 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population was murdered by December of that year, which was about 175,000 people out of a population of 250,000. These were … killing fields in Lithuania.”
On the upside, there was a major sense of celebration among Cogan’s kin at the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
The Jewish community in Bath was largely made up of merchants, such as men’s clothing retailer Morris Povich. They ran the majority of grocery and meat stores, and also sold products such as women’s and workman’s clothing, Cogan said.
He recalled there being “relative acceptance” of Jews among the predominantly White Anglo-Saxon Protestant population of Bath, “and that’s because the (Jewish) townspeople served an important function; they provided goods and merchandise in the town.
“And they were there with other immigrant families,” Cogan added. “The Greeks, the Italians, the French. I think that there was a kind of camaraderie in general among, as it were, the immigrants in Bath. They kind of all knew each other, accepted each other, and there was a kind of celebration of America because they were able to go from the old to the new and create jobs for themselves.”
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.