Gershon Cohen, known as Gus, was born in Whitechapel, London, England on 31 December 1892.1
Hailing from a Jewish family, he was the son of Israel (b. 1868) and Rachel Cohen (b. 1869) both tailors who hailed from the Russian Empire(2) and who had married around 1890.
Gus was one of seven of their children and one of only four who lived past early infancy, his surviving siblings being: Marks (b. 1891), Abraham (b. 1895) and Hyman (b. 1901).
Gus and his family first appear on the 1901 census when living at 166 Montague Street, Mile End, London. By the time of the 1911 census the family home was 7 Brady Street, Whitechapel; Gus was described as a compositor and his brothers Marks and Hyman as sign-writers and shop-fitters.
With his printing business not performing well, Gus decided to join his uncle at 101 Cook Street in Brooklyn, New York with the intention of opening his own haberdashery business and earning enough money to bring his sweetheart Hettie across so that they could eventually be married. He borrowed money from a relative for the fare.
Apparently booked aboard another vessel, the Teutonic, his orthodox father forbade him from travelling over a Jewish holiday and therefore his travel plans were switched to the Titanic. Another version is that he was supposed to travel on Adriatic but it was the coal strike that forced him to switch ships.
He boarded the Titanic at Southampton on 10 April 1912, travelling third class (ticket number 3540 which cost £8, 1s). Aboard he shared a cabin with five other British men and recalled that there were a large number of Jews berthed in his section of the ship.
On Sunday 14 April Cohen had retired to his berth at around 10.30 pm and was asleep at the time of the collision; it was enough to wake him but he thought that something had maybe gone amiss in the engine rooms. Nevertheless he decided to investigate and put on a coat and headed to the forward well-deck where he saw chunks of ice lying on the deck. He returned to his berth but in the short time he had been away the floor of his cabin was beginning to flood with sea water.
The master-at-arms ordered him and his friends to get their lifejackets but they received no further orders. With no sense of any danger Cohen's mind was soon changed when a passing crewman from the engine room said to him that he better get up top as there was heavy flooding below.
Heading aft along Scotland Road Gus peered into the third class dining room and stated that he saw a large group of Irish girls gathered there, all with their rosaries and in prayer.
Managing to navigate the different decks Gus managed to get to the lifeboats but was prevented from entering one by a crewman. The manner of his survival is questionable; one version has him sliding down a fall or jumping into the ocean, being hauled aboard a passing boat. It may be the case that he managed to pass into lifeboat 12 undetected and was saved that way.
Although he recalled seeing the ship's orchestra, Gus was adamant that they were not playing their instruments during the ship's final throes. A sound that never left him was that of those people left behind who were struggling for their lives.
Aboard the Carpathia Gus wrote a letter to his parents to inform them of his safety.
The Titanic was only Gus' first brush with death and his encounters with calamity earned him the nickname "The Cat" because his friends said he had used up most of his nine lives. He served his country during WWI and escaped with his life but was blinded in one eye after being shot twice in the same day. Several years later he stepped out from the wrong side of a train and fell onto the tracks; luckily that time he escaped with just severe bruising. His next near-miss came when he was knocked down in a hit-and-run accident and sustained a fractured skull. In the late 1930s, a bout of rheumatic fever nearly ended him but he later recovered and returned to work. During WWII he survived the Blitz when a building that he oversaw was destroyed.
Gus was married in London in 1917 to his longstanding fiancée and namesake, Hettie Cohen (b. 23 May 1893); they remained childless and during the 1930s were residents of 106 Evelyn Court in Hackney, London where Gus worked as an assistant buyer. The couple later retired to Southend-on-Sea, Essex where they spent the rest of their lives. Undaunted by his experiences, Gus and his wife enjoyed going on cruises up until Hettie suffered a debilitating stroke in the late 1960s.
During the 1950s Gus regularly corresponded with Walter Lord when the latter was writing A Night to Remember. In 1958, when that book became a movie and interest in the topic soared, Cohen was reunited with many of his fellow survivors. He would later give several television and countless newspaper interviews about his brush with death in 1912.
Gus Cohen in 1975
Widowed in 1974, Gus lived 7 Clifton Terrace at Raymond Court old people's flats for the last few years of his life which were plagued with ill-health. He died in Rochford Hospital, Rochford, Essex on 4 August 1978 aged 85.