Sunday, November 23, 2014

Canadian veterans return to Italy for 70th anniversary of Second World War campaign

My story from 1994 about the 50th anniversary veterans' trip to Italy, Montreal Gazette.

News that Canada's Department of Veterans Affairs is taking 28 surviving Canadian veterans to Italy this week has brought back memories of a similar trip I covered for both the CBC and the Canadian Press as a freelance reporter when I was living and working in Italy.

The year was 1994, and I was a reporter based in Rome. Canada sent several busloads of veterans back to Italy for the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of Rome during the Italian Campaign.  I spent nearly two weeks traveling from the bottom to the top of Italy with the tour, interviewing the veterans, and the locals, (and sometimes acting as unofficial translator), while filing stories and covering the ceremonies and memorials from Pachino, to Agira, to Cassino through to Ortona.

The 1943 invasion of Italy by the Canadians -- who were often called the "D-Day Dodgers", a moniker that caused great resentment at the time -- saw nearly 6,000 Canadians lose their lives in the fighting to kick the Germans out of Sicily, and root them out of the mainland, including chasing them east into the Adriatic coastal areas of Ravenna and Ortona. It would take the Canadians nearly a year  before Rome was liberated, and until 1945 before the generals pulled the Canadians out to fight in other parts of Europe.

The 1994 trip took place in May, when the weather was a lot warmer, and might have been a bit easier for the then-younger veterans to endure. This week's trip is happening not only when they are twenty years older, but also during the late fall season of heavy rain and mudslides, which was nearly the same time of the calendar as when the Canadians became bogged down in house-to-house fighting, deadly mortar attacks, and raids across swollen rivers such as the Moro on the way to Ortona.

The two decades in between the trips also point out another difference, this time, a sad milestone: in 1994, there were nearly 60 veterans on the trip. This year, just 28.

As I was a Rome-based reporter,  veterans department officials from Ottawa weren't aware that I was going to cover their trip, which I did, for both the CBC and the Canadian Press.   In most places, I was the only reporter at all covering any of their ceremonies and remembrances.

In a thank you note, then-minister Gerald Merrithew said my presence was unexpected, but "most welcome."

"The resultant publicity that you gave our pilgrimage was invaluable," he wrote. "Until recently, few Canadians knew about this campaign and its significance to the Allied cause of the Second World War. Your presence with us on this trip helped change all that."

Twenty years later, today, I am now busy working on research for a new book, to be about the Canadian Jewish servicemen who were killed during the Second World War.  I know 43 of them are buried in Italy.

If anyone has information about, or is related to any Canadian Jewish servicemen or women who died, for any reason, in the Second World War, kindly please contact me, to help me put the information in my book.

Thank you letter from Minister of Veterans Affairs, 1994.

Here are some of my other stories published at the time of the 1994 trip.

Italians issue comic book about Canadian liberators: Winnipeg Free Press 1994

Canadian veterans meet the Pope: thank you   - this one was from the 1991 Canadian pilgrimage, on the 47th anniversary.

Anzio, ceremony May 27, 1991, Ellin with Jack Callowhill, from Stoney Creek, Ontario, with the First Special Service Force. Callowhill was 90, just last year.

Anzio centre, memorial for First Special Service Force, 1991, Ellin is 5th from left. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Why Stephen Harper should speak louder to help free Mohamed Fahmy and other Al Jazeera journalists in an Egyptian jail

As a national director of the Canadian Association of Journalists, I was invited to speak Thursday on SUN News Network,  about our earlier news release, which condemned the conviction of Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy and his colleagues by an Egyptian court Monday. It asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper to be more vocal in working for Fahmy's release.

I participated in a short interview on the show "The Source" with Ezra Levant.

Here is the clip.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Watch French Jews say the memorial Kaddish for Canadian and U.S. D-Day soldiers in Normandy, June 8, 2014

(video courtesy Jean-Claude Prot, Mediaglobalcom)

While a giant grey Hercules C-130 military aircraft carried out a solo fly past overhead, more than 200 French Jews gathered Sunday June 8, 2014 at the Normandy American Cemetery for what organizers called  “a very emotional service” – the very first communal Kaddish recited in memory of the fallen Canadian and American Jewish servicemen from the Second World War who are buried nearby.

The ceremony took place in the same spot where two days earlier, world leaders including U.S. President Barrack Obama and French President Francois Hollande paid tribute to the 70th anniversary of the historic military sacrifices of June 6, 1944, which led to the liberation of Europe.

“When the Jewish Choir of France began singing, led by Cantor Raphael Cohen with that tenor voice…it was just something unbelievable,” said organizer Jean-Max Skenadji, who became inspired to arrange Sunday’s landmark Kaddish while on a private trip to Normandy last winter.

“I discovered Stars of David at the [Colleville-sur-Mer] cemetery and I was just taken by such a big emotion and felt very sorry because, since I was alone, I wasn’t able to say Kaddish for them [the soldiers], ” Skenadji recalled Tuesday, in a telephone interview from his office in Paris.  After checking the religious legality of staging such an event, Skenadji, a long-time promoter in France, launched the D-Day trip.

“What would have become of us without the disembarkation of the Allies in France in June 1944?” he told the crowd.

One by one, the visitors read out the names of the 149 Jewish American soldiers whose tombstones are shaped like Stars of David at the cemetery, just inland from the famous Omaha Beach. The crowd also read out the names of nearly 60 Jewish Canadian airmen and soldiers. Their graves lie further east along the Normandy coastline, in cemeteries including Beny-sur-Mer, and Bretteville-sur-Laize.

The ceremony was “impressive, very solemn, and moving,” said Cantor Rabbi Raphael Cohen, a Paris-based clergyman, in an email after the ceremony.

During the 90-minute memorial, Cohen led the singing of the El Maale Rahamim prayer, plus Esa Einay, a funeral hymn, and the blessing for the State of Israel.

Cantor Rabbi Raphael Cohen and the Jewish Choir of France, courtesy Jean-Max Skenadji)

The crowd then recited the Kaddish aloud, led by Rabbi Moshe Lewin, the chief Jewish chaplain to France’s armed forces.

Rabbi Moshe Lewin
Isabelle Allard, local MLA, and Caen Mayor Joel Bruneau

Jean-Max Skenadji (right) with flag bearers (all photos courtesy Jean-Max Skenadji)
Among the other dignitaries on hand to pay respects were the mayor of Caen, Joel Bruneau, Isabelle Attard, a member of the French National Assembly from the Calvados region, Col. Yehudi Lahav, the military attaché at the Israeli embassy in Paris, and nine French war veterans who acted as flag bearers.

Local rabbis from the Deauville Chabad community inscribed the first few Hebrew letters in a fresh new Torah scroll they are dedicating to the memory of the Jewish servicemen and their wartime sacrifices.

(courtesy Jean-Max Skenadji)

While organizers were pleased that so many people turned out for the event, including many non-Jewish visitors to the American cemetery who stopped to watch, Skenadji remains disappointed that neither the U.S. nor Canadian embassies in France sent representatives, despite repeated invitations.

“They just couldn’t come back to Normandy in order to be present at another ceremony,” said Skenajdi, acknowledging how diplomatic staff may have been too busy from the official state ceremonies on Friday.  “But from my point of view, that’s no excuse.”

A spokesperson for the Canadian Embassy in Paris, Colonel Guy Maillet, did send his regrets, saying there was just no time left for either himself or the Canadian ambassador, Lawrence Cannon, to fit this Sunday commemoration into the busy D-Day calendar.

And in Ottawa, the Department of Foreign Affairs issued a brief statement, saying Canada was represented in Normandy “at the highest level” during the D-Day ceremonies, and repeated Canada’s position on the State of Israel.

“Canada has a strong and close relationship with Israel based on shared values, common interests, and strong political and social ties between our two countries,” said Beatrice Fenelon, a spokesperson for the department.

For his part, Skenadji is hoping for a different answer next year, when he plans to stage the  Kaddish service again in Normandy.

And for next time, Skenadji is planning to invite the families of the American and Canadian soldiers killed here, to make the trip to France.

Next May, 2015 will see the world mark another milestone: the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, or VE-Day.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How Canadian Synagogues said Kaddish for D-Day 2014

Adath Israel logo, Montreal

Montreal Rabbi Michael Whitman paid tribute Saturday June 7, 2014 to the three RCMP officers killed in Moncton, as part of a wider memorial service at Adath Israel synagogue for all Canadians who risked their lives to serve others, including those killed on the 70th anniversary of D-Day in the Second World War.

As world leaders including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barrack attended the official 70th anniversary events in France, synagogues from Manitoba to Montreal took part in the Kaddish for D-Day initiative. They paid tribute to the seventy Jewish soldiers and airmen from Canada who were killed in France and are buried in cemeteries across Normandy.

“By 1944, the Jewish soldiers understood they were not only fighting for Canada, but also for the remnant of the Jewish people in Europe,” Whitman said, explaining why he added their sacrifices, and the murders of the three Mounties, to the Adath’s regular prayer for the Canadian Armed Forces.
Rabbi Alan Green, Shaarey Zedek (courtesy of synagogue website)
Some congregations, like in Winnipeg, did it as part of the Yizkor prayers recited on the holiday of Shavuot.

Calling the D-Day invasion a “mega-historical event”, on par with the founding of the State of Israel, the moonwalk, and the Holocaust, Rabbi Alan Green of Winnipeg’s Shaarey Zedek called on his worshippers Thursday June 5, to remember the sacrifices of local Jewish men who went overseas.

Among the casualties on D-Day and in ensuing battles, were fourteen Jewish rifleman, troopers, captains, doctors, pilots, and lawyers--from Winnipeg,” Green told the congregation. “They're now buried in cemeteries in Northern France, and, as we're are about to perform the special Yizkor service for Shavuot--along with all those we're remembering today--on this day before the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, I would ask you to add, the following fourteen names.”

He then read out the names, including Harry Segal, a rifleman with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. The Rifles landed on Juno Beach at 7:49 a.m. on the morning of the invasion, and sustained heavy casualties, according to military records. Segal died June 8, 1944. He was married, and the son of Charles and Sarah Segal.

In Toronto, several synagogues participated in Kaddish for D-Day, including Beit Rayim, in Vaughan, led by Rabbi Chezi Zionce, who read out all 70 names Thursday, also during Yizkor.

For Beit Rayim worshipper Nellie Miller, who knew one of the men on the list, Private Joe Gertel of Montreal, hearing the names “just sent a chill up my spine.”

“I recall those days,” Miller said in an interview, recalling growing up in Montreal when Gertel went off to enlist. He is buried in the Beny-sur-Mer Military Cemetery near Juno Beach, in France. He was killed in July 1944, while attached to the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. He was 22.
Joe Gertel's tombstone in Beny-sur-Mer, France (John Friedlan photo)

Prayers were also said at Conservative synagogue, Beth Tzedek in Toronto, led by Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl.

“I think it was exceptionally important and encouraged the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs to circulate the information, “ Frydman-Kohl wrote in an email. “The yahrzeit [anniversary] on the Jewish calendar will be 25 Sivan.”

And at the City Shul, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein read the names of five Canadian servicemen from Toronto and gave a little bit of information about each one, whether they went to the University of Toronto, or whose family were members of Holy Blossom Synagogue.

“It was beautiful. People were very moved,” she wrote, in an email.

In Montreal, services for the Canadian war dead were also held at Congregation Shaare Zion and at Congregation Dorshei Emet.

According to Dorshei Emet member Lois Lieff, “it was indeed a very moving and emotional Kaddish.”

In Kitchener, where Beth Jacob Congregation lost three members of the shul during the Second World War, Kaddish was recited on the Friday evening June 6.  

According to the synagogue bulletin, the three casualties were Sidney Acker, Lorie Reider and Samuel Harry Roseman. Reider and Roseman are buried in France.  Acker, of Guelph, was killed when his Anson bomber crashed during training in Ontario, in 1942.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

50 Canadians went and said Kaddish for Bomb. George Meltz of Toronto, 25, at his grave in Normandy

Three years ago, my family walked by the tombstone of Jewish Canadian serviceman George Meltz, of Toronto, standing out among the thousands of white headstones at the Second World War Beny-sur-Mer cemetery, near Juno Beach, in France.

Now, my dear friend Ted Barris, a Canadian military historian, author and broadcaster, is back in Normandy, and has lit a memorial Yarhzeit candle at Meltz's grave, seventy years after Meltz made the ultimate sacrifice as part of Canada's D-Day invasion in 1944.

The group of 50 Canadians who are travelling with Barris on this international anniversary saw the Meltz tombstone, and read the powerful epitaph "He died so Jewry shall suffer no more." Thank you Ted, and all Canadians who remembered Meltz, as well as the 70+ Jewish servicemen buried in France, and said Kaddish for them.