Tailor's cutter who became king of Lampedusa


This tiny Italian island 200km south of Sicily has repeatedly hit the headlines as one of the target-destinations for thousands of African migrants to Europe.

However, Lampedusa is also known for a happier story of arrival.

On 10 June, 1941, Flight-Sergeant Sydney Cohen, an RAF pilot, was trying to fly back to his base in Malta in his Swordfish bi-plane, but veered off course and was forced to make an emergency landing on the island.

He and his crew had decided to surrender to the large Italian garrison of 4,300 troops, but before they could do so, to their amazement, a number of soldiers rushed out waving white flags.

In his own words, "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 and shouting: 'No, no - we surrender!'" Before long, the Italian troops had declared Flt Sgt Cohen the commander of the island.

Flt Sgt Cohen, a tailor's cutter from Clapton, accepted the Italian surrender - confirmed on a scrap of paper - from the Commander. Afterwards, he flew back to Malta where he delivered the "document of surrender".

In 1941, British morale was at its very lowest, and a Nazi invasion was feared daily. However, the episode became a rare feel-good story that was used to lift the public's spirits. The News Chronicle carried the headline "London Tailor's Cutter is now King of Lampedusa."

This inspired the Yiddish playwright, SJ Charendorf, to turn the story into a musical. The King of Lampedusa was staged in 1943, first at the New Yiddish Theatre in Adler Street and later at the Grand Palais in the Mile End Road, and starred the doyen of the London Yiddish stage, Meier Tzelniker, and his daughter, Anna.

It had the longest run of any production in Yiddish and was even staged in Palestine. The BBC broadcast an English translation, the hero played by English-Jewish actor Sidney Tafler.

News of the play reached Germany and attracted the attention of the Nazi collaborator "Lord Haw-Haw", who mentioned it in his propaganda broadcasts and even threatened the theatre with a visit from the Luftwaffe. It never happened.

The story of the King of Lampedusa ended sadly. After the war was over, Flt Sgt Cohen flew to England on 26 August 1946, but something went wrong and he was lost without trace over the Channel. His body was never recovered. Happily, he had seen the play before he died while on leave in Haifa in 1944.

In 2001, rumours circulated that Hollywood had decided to turn the play into a movie, though with a different ending. It was considered that the death of Flt Sgt Cohen would be too downbeat, so in the film he survived and realised his dream to emigrate to Australia and become a sheep-farmer. Unfortunately, the film idea appears to have bitten the dust.

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