Max and Grete Cohen’s love story began in Europe in 1920 and continued in Ottawa where Grete became a pioneering woman leader in the Jewish community.
The Max and Grete Cohen Memorial Fund at the Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation honours the founders of Colonial Furniture. After Grete died in 1992, her sons, Ed and Sid, created the fund in their parents’ memory. This past January, in commemoration of Sid’s first yahrzeit, his three children (Steve, Brian, and Susie) have done likewise, remembering their father and grandparents with a significant donation to their family’s fund.
This story began in the summer of 1920 when a young Ottawa man met the love of his life on a summer trip to Europe. Max was in Europe buying goods to resell in Canada when he met his bride-to-be, Grete, in the Prussian seaside town of Kolberg (now Kołobrzeg, Poland).
“It was love at first sight,” explains the couple’s grandson, Mike Cohen.
That summer romance led to a courtship by mail.
“Distance made their hearts grow fonder,” says granddaughter, Susie Charendoff. “They wrote trans-Atlantic love-letters for three years!”
In 1923, they married in Europe, and Grete moved from Berlin to Ottawa. The wooden sidewalks and lumber mills of Ottawa were a far cry from cosmopolitan Berlin. But Grete quickly made new friends and joined Max’s large family already there from Russia.
The loving couple soon had three children: Ed, Sid, and Erica. Initially, they lived in a basement apartment on College Avenue (now Copernicus) on the University of Ottawa campus.
Max had an entrepreneurial spirit and tried many ventures to support his growing family. One of his early businesses was a 130-acre chicken farm off Albion Road South. During the war, if you took a job on a farm, you could leave school three weeks early, so Ed and Sid became enthusiastic, teenage chicken farmers. Their neighbour in Sandy Hill was a kosher butcher who taught them how to slaughter.
“It’s hard to imagine, but apparently my ‘poppa’ was quite good at it!” says Sid’s granddaughter, Olivia Grete Cohen, a second year McGill University student, who carries her great-grandmother’s name.
Max’s sudden and unexpected death in 1944 left Grete a single mother of three. But Grete had no plan to give up.
“She got up, brushed herself off, and did what she had to do,” says Brian. At the time, his father Sid was only in Grade 12 but started work immediately. Likewise, Ed had to get a military discharge from the Air Force in Manitoba, in the middle of the war, to attend the funeral.
Ed and Sid joined their mother on a mission to save the family business. Grete dressed her boys in suits and drove to the Bank of Montreal offices in Old Montreal in a bold move to speak face-to-face with the bank manager.
“She convinced him that they could run the store and asked for some debt flexibility,” explains the couples’ grandson, Steve Cohen, who grew up hearing this impressive story of resilience. “It was also the first time my dad smoked a cigar – he did it to look older!”
Against all odds, the bank manager agreed, and, with Grete at the helm, the family started to revive the business. A few months later, the war ended and the economy rebounded. The boys worked full-time, and their younger sister Erica worked part-time while earning a commerce degree at Carleton – she was among Carleton’s first female graduates in 1952.
Despite this successful turnaround, it was a difficult time for Grete. The loss of her husband was followed by the crushing news that her youngest sister, Else, and husband had been murdered by the Nazis. Miraculously, their son Ben survived, hidden by a non-Jewish couple in Belgium. After the war, Grete not only adopted her nephew but sponsored his rescuer-parents, as well. They came to live on the same street in the Glebe and were eventually recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for their actions.
Grete had been raised in a Zionist home and, in Ottawa, devoted herself to Jewish, communal and early-feminist causes, such as Canadian Hadassah-WIZO, Israel Bonds, B’nai Brith, and ORT. She was the first female honouree of the JNF Ottawa Negev Dinner in 1971, and the first female recipient of the Gilbert Greenberg Distinguished Service Award in 1988 for lifetime leadership in Ottawa’s Jewish community.
Grete, the single mother, businesswoman, and community volunteer, retired and left Ed and Sid in charge of the store until they sold it in the 1980s. (The new owners kept the Colonial name because of its good reputation.)
To honour their parents, Ed, who died in 2005, and Sid created the Max and Grete Cohen Memorial Fund after Grete’s passing at age 92.
Coming full circle, Sid’s three children continue this charitable legacy to the Foundation as a testament to their family’s century-long involvement in and support of the community.
“I’m the fifth generation in Ottawa,” says Billy Max Cohen, a fourth-year Carleton University student who carries his great-grandfather’s name. He is fortunate to have grown up in a family with such strong role models and loving family bonds.