One of the most popular Yiddish plays of all times was The King of Lampedusa, a musical based on the incredible real life story of Sydney Cohen, a Jewish soldier during World War II. Cohen’s real-life adventures were so astonishing they almost seemed like one of the Yiddish plays, full of twists and turns and improbable coincidences, that entertained Jewish audiences who flocked to Yiddish speaking theaters.

Sydney Cohen grew up, like so many British Jews in the 1920s and 1930s, in impoverished circumstances in Britain’s East End. His parents died when he was just a child and he lived with his sister Lily, scraping a living by working as a tailor’s apprentice. When World War II broke out, Sydney joined the Royal Air Force, eventually becoming a Flight-Sergeant, flying a Swordfish Torpedo Bomber on sorties against Nazi Germany.

Syd Cohen

On one flight on June 10, 1943, Sgt. Cohen was flying back to his base on Malta when his navigation system went haywire. “The plane had a fit of gremlins so we had to make for the nearest land,” Sgt. Cohen later explained. The three-man crew turned towards a tiny island in the Mediterranean: the hostile Italian island of Lampedusa. At the time, it was defended by 4,300 Italian Axis troops.

“As we came down on a ropey landing ground we saw a burnt hangar and burnt aircraft around us,” Sgt. Cohen recalled. The crew made a bumpy landing, then exited their bomber with their hands raised, ready to surrender to the Italian troops.

Instead the Italians were in no mood to fight. “A crowd of Italians came out to meet us and we put our hands up to surrender but then we saw they were all waving white sheets shouting, ‘No, no. We surrender.’ The whole island was surrendering to us,” Sgt. Cohen recalled.

Sgt. Cohen asked to see the commandant of the island but before he could be escorted an air raid began and the surrendering Italian troops ran for cover. The island had been the subject of sustained Allied air raids and the Italian troops had had enough. “I concluded that the nerves of my hosts were a bit jagged,” Sgt. Cohen dryly recounted later. Eventually, the Italians signed a formal note of surrender and allowed Sgt. Cohen to refuel. He took off and flew to nearby Tunis, bringing news of Lampedusa’s fall to British forces with him

Lampedusa’s capitulation to the British came at a key moment. In the summer of 1943 Britain was braced for invasion and was being mercilessly bombed by German airplanes. It seemed that Germany might win the war. Yet the mass surrender of Lampedusa gave Britain and its allies a glimmer of hope. Strategically, Lampedusa was the first of what would be a series of capitulations of Axis troops to Allied forces. Psychologically, the capture of Lampedusa was a much-needed shot in the arm for Britons who feared they were losing the war.

“Lampedusa Gives in to Sgt. Cohen!” was the headline on the front of the Sunday Pictoral newspaper in Britain on June 13, 1943, when news of the surrender broke. “London Tailor’s Cutter is now ‘King of Lampedusa’” screamed the front page of the News Chronicle. The story was covered by all the British newspapers and many foreign papers too, all documenting the incredible story.

One newspaper that missed out on the coverage was the Jewish Morning Journal of New York. Their London correspondent was a Czech-born journalist named S.J. Charendorf, who wrote up the news item, and was on his way to the Ministry of Information to send in his story, when it suddenly occurred to him that the incredible tale of Sgt. Syd Cohen would make a great Yiddish musical - and “The King of Lampedusa” a wonderful title. He ran straight home and started writing, producing a play designed to raise the public’s morale. He took some liberties with the plot and renamed Syd Cohen Sam Silverman in his play.

Charendorf also added a comic second act in which a grateful Winston Churchill offers the young Jewish pilot any reward he might name. The pilot asks for an independent Jewish homeland in the ancient land of Israel, which was at the time administered by Britain. In the play, Churchill informs the pilot that he cannot or will not grant the Jewish people a homeland, but he offers something else instead: the Italian island of Lampedusa. Thus, the pilot becomes “King” of the tiny island.

The King of Lampedusa had its debut in 1943 at the New Yiddish Theatre in Adler Street in London’s East End. The great British-Jewish star Meier Tzelniker helped produce the musical, commissioning songs and helping write the lyrics. He starred in the musical and his daughter Anna Tzelniker played a role.

It ran for months to packed houses. Non-Jews as well as Jews packed into the Grand Palais every night. Even though the musical was in Yiddish, it was easy to follow the well-known plot, and the music numbers appealed to everyone. It closed in 1944 when German bombing of the East End of London intensified and made it too risky to go out of doors at night.

The King of Lampedusa was translated into Hebrew and performed at the Hamatae Theatre in Haifa, in modern day Israel. Sgt. Sydney Cohen got to watch that performance in 1944 when he was on leave from Malta and visited the ancient Jewish homeland. It was the only time Sgt. Cohen would get to see the wonderful musical his actions inspired.

In the musical, the “King of Lampedusa” returns home to a rapturous welcome. Unlike the real life Sgt. Cohen, his theatre equivalent had living parents to embrace him on his return. In the musical, his character gets to emigrate to Australia after the war and live out a peaceful life as a sheep farmer. The actual Sgt. Cohen had a much grimmer fate.

As he was flying home from Malta after his military service, and on August 26, 1946, his plane crashed into the Straits of Dover. The wreckage was never found; his sister Lily was never able to give Sydney Cohen the Jewish funeral he deserved. Sgt. Cohen continues to live on in the hearts and memories of the thousands of people who watched his play, and gained courage and hope during the darkest hours of World War II from his actions.