Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembrance Day: Standing, While One Still Can, With the Wingates

For the past few years, I have been attending the Remembrance Day ceremony at the downtown Jewish Community Centre in Toronto with the Wingates. How I adore and admire them.

This year the sky was grey as it no doubt was then, the air was moist and sadly, but naturally, the number of veterans in their glorious dress uniforms was considerably smaller than last year. 

As I wrote last year, I was saddened not just by the actual poignant simplicity and glory of the ceremony itself, and not just by the act of remembrance, the haunting melodies, the raw display of emotion and patriotism, but because for “security reasons” the Jewish schoolchildren were not allowed to attend the ceremony outside. Save for a lovely recitation of In Flanders Field by two lovely students, the young Jews were confined to their indoor assembly, "safe" from those who might attack them at a Remembrance Day ceremony or anywhere else for that matter.

Like last year, I caught a glimpse of the children heading to their assembly with their poppies on, every last one, and poppies on every staff member, Jewish and non-Jewish, and as I said last year, they were just poppies, and not poppies with Stars of David on them.

When people think of Jews and World War Two, they think of the Jewish victims for the most part. 

The story of the Jews as fighters in the Second World War, and not solely as victims of the Second World War and the Holocaust is not very well known or told enough. The Wingates, like the Maccabees of old, and the IDF of now, were fighting Jews. Warrior Jews.

As it happens, there were vast number of young Jews from Europe who had barely made it to Canada as refugees or sponsored relatives, when they went to their local enlistment offices, donned Canadian army uniforms and went straight back to Europe to fight the Nazis. 

Can you imagine their parents? I cannot? Can you imagine their bravery and determination? Can you imagine their resolution? In some cases, multiple siblings went from Europe to Canada and then right back to Europe in Canadian combat uniforms to fight.

It is a fact that Jews did fight, and fight back whenever they could. It is a particularly savage obscenity and disgrace to the memory of the fighters, of those who resisted in any way, shape, or form, to picture Jews solely as victims, even in their darkest hours. 

Whether in the Warsaw ghetto, in uniform or with stethoscopes .

We were fighters.

We still are.

To that end, I have been thinking a lot about Jewish resistance. 

At its simplest level, Jewish existence is Jewish resistance. 

As a Jew, the fact that I exist and live as a Jew, and raise my children in the Jewish faith is resistance to evil. The fact that many of my forefathers fought back with any means they had is resistance. That Jews who had safely made it to Canada, to Australia, America and Britain volunteered to fight is resistance. That Israel, the nation and Israel the people live and thrive, feel joy, and live a life of joy and thankful gratitude for our blessings and fight back in any capacity-that is Jewish resistance. That we refuse to commit mass-suicide to please any of our enemies-that is Jewish resistance.

So today, on the very day that the beastly Jew-haters of Europe continue their ancestors' vile and disgusting tradition of labelling Jews and things Jewish, I stand with the Wingates.

Where Jewish leaders make the pussified eunuchs of America feel “unsafe”, I stand with Israel and my people.

On the anniversary of the savage murder of Jews in Mumbai, solely because they were Jews, I stand with the Wingates.

On this solemn day, I reaffirm my commitment to the Jewish people, and to the Jewish nation and religion, for where Jews thrive, humanity and civility thrive.

Why? Because where Jews are extinguished, so too, is freedom and liberty.

On a related note, some weeks ago I was contacted by Eric McGeer, author of “Words of Valediction and Memory: Canadian Epitaphs of the Second World War”.

Mr. McGeer was kind enough to send me several photographs from his personal collection, and I am delighted to share them with you here.

(His very nice interview with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge can be seen here, although I confess, I did ask him how on earth he got through the interview with such a pompous ass such as Mansbridge because I am not entirely sure I could have pulled the same thing off.)

Via Mr. McGeer:

Dear Laura,

“You might also be interested in the story of the Palestine Regiment, also known as the Jewish Brigade, which was composed of Jewish volunteers from all over the world, and fought in northern Italy from late 1944 on; it was commanded for a time by a Canadian-born Jewish soldier named Ernest Frank Benjamin; there were also the many young German and Austrian Jews who came to England, anglicised their names, and fought for various special service units.”

“For interest's sake, I send along a few of the epitaphs engraved on the headstones of Jewish Canadian soldiers. Many were composed in Hebrew, or sometimes in Russian or Ukrainian, echoing the soldier's traditions and background. These are in English, and go well with the epitaph on Gunner Meltz's gravestone:”

"Deeply mourned by his wife and family. He died so Jewry would suffer no more" 

"A youth of great merit, respected and loved by all, who died for humanity."
Private Samuel Norman Nichols, RCOC, 14.10.44 (age 25) Schoonselhof Cemetery, Antwerp, Belgium

I am glad… to have the opportunity of serving in a cause so right and just.
Lieutenant David Harold Bindman, RCR, 10.12.43 (age 24) Moro River Canadian War Cemetery, Italy

"A son of Israel who gave his life that others might cherish freedom."
Flight Lieutenant Hector Bernard Rubin DFC, RCAF, 21.3.45 (age 29) Hamburg (Ohlsdorf) Cemetery, Germany

"Here lies one of the Jewish faith. He gave his life for God, his people and country."
Lieutenant Morris Marvin Soronow, RWR, 28.8.44 (age 33) Calais Canadian War Cemetery, France

"O Israel, here lies your servant; defender of truth, justice and brotherhood."
Private Issie Bell, HPER, 25.7.43 (age 24) Agira Canadian War Cemetery, Sicily

"He counted not his life in the front ranks of the fight against fascism."
Private Sidney Ofner, RCR, 15.1.44 (age 27) Moro River Canadian War Cemetery, Italy

Also enclosed is a photo of another grave, this one of Private Jack Besserman, who was killed in Sicily in July of 1943. The historian of the 48th Highlanders of Canada recounts that Besserman plunged into a German position in a fury to settle accounts with an enemy he could not wait to get at. The inscription on his grave reflects his dual allegiance to Canada and to his people.”

"For Israel and Canada. Ever remembered by mother, father, sisters and brothers."
Private Jack Besserman, 48th HC, 18.7.43 (age 29) Agira Canadian War Cemetery, Sicily

"For Israel and Canada, forever remembered by Mother, Father, sisters and brothers."
Furthermore, from Mr. McGeer:

“There was a Jewish Canadian lieutenant, Mitchell Sterlin, who fought in a gallant action near Ortona, in Italy, in December of 1943; he and a few of his comrades from the Royal Canadian Regiment held off a series of German counterattacks on a house that the Canadians had to hold in order to secure the gains of the attack they were making across the Moro River. Sterlin's calm leadership stabilized a very difficult situation, and afterwards the house in which he had made this brave stand was named Sterlin Castle in his honour. Sadly, he was killed a few days after this brave action. The photo of his gravestone shows the remarkable inscription, very ennobling and very apposite, that his parents chose. There is a plaque at the entrance to the house which Canadian visitors may still see today.”

"Some gain eternity in a lifetime, others gain it in one brief hour-Talmud."
I took these photos during my travels in Italy and northwest Europe several years ago. I was interested in writing a series of guidebooks to the Canadian battlefields in Italy, which I managed to do. But I was also so moved and inspired by the inscriptions on the headstones that I put together a book listing these inscriptions and offering some thoughts on their significance. Naturally, the inscriptions of the Jewish soldiers had a particular resonance, and thankfully I was able to find a professor at U of T who kindly translated the Hebrew inscriptions for me. It seemed an overlooked record of courage that all Canadians should know about, and I hope that the books have inspired people to go to the many Canadian war cemeteries and pay their respects.”

I hope that these are of interest to you and that your research yields more information about this very important subject of Jewish resistance, in its many forms, during the Second World War.

May all the brave warriors rest in peace, and may we each find in ourselves the pockets of resistance that will carry us through our current battles against evil. 

May G-d protect, bless and keep us.