Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Watchmaker of Normandy: Murray Jacobs

Murray Jacobs, (Ellin Bessner photo).
I had the honour to interview Murray Jacobs last December, 2014 at his Toronto home as part of my research into the contribution of Canadian Jewish servicemen and women in the Second World War.
Murray was a former president of the Royal Canadian Legion #256 General Wingate branch in Toronto. He was a tireless campaigner to raise money to improve the lives of today's surviving veterans and to honour the legacies of those Jewish servicemen who didn't come home
Murray was a trained watchmaker from Toronto who was called upon to use his specialized trade in Normandy during the war in the battle that begun Aug. 7/8, 1944 called Operation Totalize. His commanding officer Lt.-Gen. Guy G. Simonds decided to get the workshop men to make it safer for infantry to get into the fight. He asked Jacobs and his team to turn 75 Canadian Priest tanks into so-called "Kangaroos" (or defrocked priests as they were called): take out the gun turret and reinforce the sides and voila you have a safer way to transport men into battle. They did the conversion work in three days in an orchard under the blazing August sun. These were the first use of armoured personnel carriers for the Canadian infantry in the field. And those men who rode in them suffered fewer casualties then the infantry who walked. The Kangaroos were used in the fighting to close the Falaise Gap. Murray also was a proud Jew who wore a prayer shawl under his uniform. He actually had two of these, because his father made a pair so he could wear one at all times (if the second was dirty or in the wash). He told me he was the only watchmaker the Canadian army had in Normandy. So sorry to hear of his passing.

On Wednesday, November 18, 2015 at home. Murray Jacobs beloved husband of Millie Jacobs. Loving father and father- in-law of Tami and Joel Kligman, Nancy and Marty Frankel, and Howard and Chris Jacobs. Dear brother and brother-in-law of Arlene and the late Sheldon Miller, and the late Bess and Bill Nowack, Kay and Moe Greenbaum, Morris and Ethel Jacobs, and Art and Sophie Jacobs. Devoted grandfather of Sarah and Brian, Joe and Julie, Sabra and Dan, and Dylan. Devoted great- grandfather of Jesse, Alexander, and Ben. Interment Jewish War Veteran's section at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park. Memorial donations may be made to the Murray Jacobs Memorial Fund c/o the Benjamin Foundation, 3429 Bathurst Street, Toronto, M6A 2C3, 416-780-0324 or

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Jews in Hong Kong to pay tribute to Canadian soldiers killed there in the Second World War

Sai Wan War Cemetery, Hong Kong
(courtesy Commonwealth War Graves Commission website)
Timing is everything. And the Internet is a miraculous instrument. And both are about to connect a Canadian Jewish community in Hong Kong with the surviving next-of-kin of four Canadian servicemen who were killed in the Second World War there.

I am just finished writing the first draft of my chapter about Hong Kong, for my new book about the Canadian Jewish servicemen who were killed in the Second World War. 

This week I interviewed a Toronto businessman. We met for a coffee at What a Bagel, on Bathurst Street in Thornhill. I had asked for an interview because his father was one of four Canadian Jewish servicemen who lost their lives in the battle for Hong Kong, in 1941. He had just marked the 74th Yahrzeit (anniversary of his father's death).  He was a baby when his father David "Morris" Schrage died.

Then, I received an email from a Canadian banker, Garry Stein from Hong Kong. He is a long time Hong Kong resident and a member of their synagogue, the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong. He wrote to me in response to a note I'd placed last year on a website devoted to all things Old Hong Kong. It is called gwulo   I had asked for help looking for the descendants of a Sgt. Robert Macklin. He was also one of the four Canadian Jewish Hong Kong casualties.

Macklin was with the British Army. After the invasion, he was a POW for about a year, and, like so many hundreds of other Canadian POWs, suffered inhumane treatment. He died in late 1942. 

Also thanks to the Internet, and specifically to, I was contacted by the grandson of Robert Macklin's best friend. He told me an incredible story of how their family has been honouring the Canadian soldier all these years. You'll have to read all about it when my book comes out.

There are two other Canadian Jewish servicemen who were lost in the Battle of Hong Kong. They came on the troop ship carrying the 1,970 members of C Force to shore up the British Garrison against a possible Japanese invasion in the fall of 1941.  Max Berger from Sarnia, Ontario, was with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. 

And there is Hymie Greenberg, of Spedden, Alberta. He was with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. He is buried in another cemetery, the Stanley Military Cemetery. 

Now back to Garry Stein. 

Mr. Stein wrote to tell me that on November 11, and again on December 6, 2015, he and others will be at a Remembrance service at Sai Wan. The December 6th one is run by the Canadian Consulate. He will say Kaddish for the Canadians and the other Jewish casualties. 

And he wanted me to tell the relatives of the four Canadians that '"these souls have not been forgotten and are visited and have Kaddish recited for them on appropriate occasions."

Alistaire Hayman, a psychotherapist in Hong Kong, tells me they take school children from the synagogue's Hebrew School on war cemetery visits: "to tell them of the war and the emphasis being placed on Jews being part of the fabric of Hong Kong and standing in the front line of its defence. Clear mention also of the fact that Commonwealth soldiers (Canadian) freshly out of basic training made the journey to Hong Kong and within a few days lost their lives in the defence of a country, possibly never before knowing of its existence."

Mark Ellison, a management consultant, and the rabbi of the UJCHK Stanton Zamek, also do their part in sharing the stories of the Jewish casualties.

Two battalions -- from the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers -- and also Headquarters personnel, embarked from Canada on October 27, 1941, and sailed into Hong Kong on November 16. The Japanese invaded on December 8, and the former British colony surrendered on Christmas Day. About 550 C Force volunteers died in battle or in captivity. The rest were prisoners of war.

I will be in Ottawa for the Remembrance Day ceremonies November 11, and will think of these four Canadian servicemen and of their families and friends, and will especially think of the wonderful people in Hong Kong's Jewish community who regularly perform this good deed (mitzvah). 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The day two Toronto soldiers based in Iceland attend a unique Yom Kippur service during the Second World War

Photo by Ellin Bessner

A great surprise this week in the Canadian Jewish News edition of September 10, 2015 devoted to the Jewish New Year. On page 6, this photo from the Ontario Jewish Archives Blankenstein Family collection shows a group of Jewish Allied servicemen and the caption in the CJN say it is Rosh Hashanah in Iceland, and it describes the event as the first service of its kind ever held on the island. 
Well, that isn't the whole story. 

This photo has taken on a life of its own since I first saw a copy of it online last year, while researching for my book about the Canadian Jewish servicemen and women who were killed during the Second World War. 

Here is what I know about that photo, and some of the people in it.

1.   It was taken in Reykjavik on Saturday, October 12, 1940, on Yom Kippur, not on Rosh Hashanah, by a very famous Icelandic photographer named Sigurður Guðmundsson. I know he took that photo thanks to an Icelandic researcher and historian Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, who has been searching for the men in the photo since 1994, and contacted me earlier this year. You can read his blog post here.

2. I know there were at least two Toronto Jewish servicemen in the photo, and both became casualties of the infamous military raid on Dieppe on August 19, 1942: On the extreme left, in the middle row, is Pvt. Lionel Cohen, who I wrote about in my last post. He enlisted as soon as the war broke out in 1939, and was with the Royal Regiment as a commando. He left behind a widow, Rose. 

On the other side of the photo on the right, in the middle row, the second from the right, is L/Cpl. Meyer Bubis, also of Toronto, also with the Royal Regiment. He, too, enlisted just when the war broke out in September 1939, and after training in Canada, was shipped over to Iceland on "The Empress of Australia" in mid-June, 1940. 

3. Meyer Bubis sent a print of that Yom Kippur photo back home to his father in Toronto, with a note on the back saying it was the first such service ever held in Iceland. This photo is now at the Ontario Jewish Archives, donated by Bubis's surviving sisters, and you can see it online here.

Here is a screen cap of his note, courtesy Ontario Jewish Archives:

4. The story of this Yom Kippur service is a fascinating Icelandic "Saga", as Vilhjalmsson  calls it. Here is what he says:

After the British occupied Iceland, Allied Jewish servicemen began to look for "landsmen" or other Jews, to hold services and observe religious holidays. There were also a handful of Jewish refugees from the war living in Reykjavik at the time, and so efforts were made through the British Protestant Chaplain to find a place to hold Yom Kippur services that year. At first, the military offered them a chapel in an old city cemetery. There was even an invitation drawn up, and sent out to the Jews in the Royal Regiment. Lionel Cohen got one and sent it home to a friend in Canada. Here is what it looks like.

Courtesy Virtual War Memorial, Veterans Affairs Canada.

 According to Vilhjamsson in a piece for the Jewish Political Studies Review, in 2004, the organizer, author Hendrik Ottosson, thought that having the service in a cemetery was insulting, so he managed to find a better spot at the Good Templars' Lodge. Despite having no rabbi, Ottosson and his wife, who was a Jewish refugee, located a Torah and two prayer shawls, and spiffed the place up a little to look like a proper chapel. And they held services on Yom Kippur Eve and twice the next day. The photo session happened just before the 25 worshippers broke their fast.

Vilhjamsson says it was the first Jewish service ever held in Iceland, and the first non-Christian one on the island since the year 1000 A.D.

5. Both Bubis and Cohen left Iceland with their regiment for England not long after the High Holidays, in late October 1940. Two years later, both would be dead, participating in the Dieppe raids.  The Royal Regiment landed a little east of Dieppe, at Puys, while dawn was breaking, and the Germans saw them, and mowed them down. The Regiment lost over 500 men that day, half killed, half taken prisoner. While Cohen is buried in the Canadian War Cemetery in Dieppe,  Bubis was declared missing, until Canada declared him officially dead in November, 1942. He is buried at Dunkirk, France.

6. Meyer Bubis was 27.  Lionel Cohen was 31. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Dieppe anniversary: a milestone in the search for Canadian Jewish servicemen killed during the Second World War

It is fitting, in so many ways, that this week marked the 73rd anniversary of the disastrous Allied raid on Dieppe, on August 19, 1942.

The Dieppe commemoration comes just as my formal work sabbatical officially begins from my job as a journalism professor at Centennial College in Toronto.

During this academic year, I am so grateful to be able to finish researching, and begin writing my new book about the 450 Canadian Jewish men and women who died in uniform during the Second World War.

All I need is a publisher!

And help from the public: please contact me if you know anyone who should be included in the book.

Full disclosure: I've actually been doing this during my spare time for the past 15 months. And really, I've been working towards this day since 2011. That's when I visited the Normandy grave of Bombardier George Meltz, 25,  from Toronto, with its Star of David, and the inscription "He died so Jewry shall suffer no more." It's what started this journey to know who he was.

So far, of the 450, I've tracked down and interviewed about 80 next of kin or people who knew them: including Isabella Meltz in Toronto, his niece. From Vancouver, I've spoken with Flying Officer Clifford Shnier's brother, Max Shnier, and from San Diego,  I interviewed Cpt. Jacob Mandel's niece and name sake, Jackie Adler.

Although I didn't know it until last summer, I, too, had someone in my own family who was lost. 

/Ellin Bessner photo.
In the Canadian Jewish Congress 1947 publication "Canadian Jews in World War 11, Volume 11, Casualties", I discovered the photo and short write up about my great-Aunt Dorothy Lieff's brother.  

Sgt. Jack Brovender, originally from Timmins, Ontario, was killed along with his five-man crew, on a training flight over the Lake District of England in 1942, when his Wellington bomber crashed. 

And, I've, unfortunately, been making a lot of those people sad.

Thanks to the Internet, and my primary source research at archives in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal, I often know more then they do about what happened to their siblings, friends, or husbands. 

Here's what happened when I interviewed Aneta Chernin in her lovely Halifax home, overlooking the "Arm" in June, to talk about her sister, Section Officer Rose Goodman, of the RCAF Women's Division. The only Jewish woman killed in uniform in the war, Goodman died on a wintry January night in 1943, in an Air Force plane crash near Lethbridge, Alberta. 

What I told Chernin about why her sister was on that plane, I'll save for the book.

"She should have lived," Chernin said, her eyes distant, after I shared with her what I'd found about the accident, in the files at the Library and Archives of Canada, in Ottawa. 

Ellin Bessner and Aneta Chernin, after the interview, Halifax, June 2015.

As best-selling author and my dear colleague Ted Barris often tells our journalism students when we teach them how to write an obituary, an obituary isn't a story about how the person died. It is a story of how the person lived. Sometimes it is the final time the person's name will appear in print.

And that's what my book could be, too.

The stories of these 450 Canadians. How they lived. Who they loved. Where they worked. And where they came from. And yes, of course, there has to be a bit about how they died.

  • It's a story about Canadian immigration: like Zave Brown, from North Bay, who had to write part of his letters home in Yiddish, because his mother, like many of the parents, was born outside Canada.  Many came from Russia, Romania, Austria, England, and Poland.

  • It's a story about growing up during the Depression: where David "Tevie" Devor, the middle of ten kids from St. Catharines, left school in Grade 7 to work.

  • It's a story about duty: when war ace Flying Officer William Henry Nelson gave up his leave to pilot his plane one more time after the Battle of Britain, and was the first Canadian Jew to win a Distinguished Flying Cross.      

  • It's a story about bravery: how Moses Hurwitz, the Lachine hockey player who turned down a tryout with the Bruins to become a twice-decorated tank commander, capturing German soldiers, as legend has it, with a wounded arm and his fierce moustache.

  • It's a story about a need to stop Hitler and save their Jewish relatives in Europe.

That last one is the motivation for many of the men in the book.  Including Michael Jacobs,  the Yale-educated son of S.W. Jacobs, the second Jew elected to the House of Commons. And Joe Gertel, a fur worker from the Jewish ghetto in Montreal, who "had a score to settle" with Hitler. And Communist and union leader Dick Steele, from Toronto, who went from going to prison for opposing the war to holding classes for his Governor General's Foot Guards about why they had to hate and beat "the Nazi vermin".

After the war was over, Prime Minister Mackenzie King thanked the 17,000 Canadian Jews who served in the military between 1939-1945, saying that for them, the war against Hitler was a "double threat". Not only to their liberty and democracy, but it was a threat to their very existence as a race.

I thought that might make a very good title for the book. Double Threat.

Finally, one more word abut the anniversary of Dieppe. About a dozen Canadian Jews lost their lives in that battle.

Which is how, 73 years ago, a Toronto woman named Rose Cohen would become a widow.  Her tall, handsome husband, Lionel Cohen, was in the insurance business. He had enlisted right after war was declared, in September 1939. They'd married two months later. The lower photo belongs to Rose's son Jerry Richmond, seen immediately below. His father, was Rose's second husband, who was also a veteran.

Jerry Richmond, with Lionel Cohen's Honour Roll from the City Of Toronto, August 17, 2015, Toronto.
Lionel and Rose Cohen, in happier times, photo courtesy of Jerry Richmond. 
Cohen was first posted to Iceland in June 1940. While there, he was one of the few Allied servicemen to attend the island's first-ever Yom Kippur services, held under the auspices of the British forces, with just two prayer shawls, and attended by a handful of Jewish refugees.  You can see a photo of that event taken by a local photographer, now in possession of the Ontario Jewish Archives in Toronto.

Soon after the High Holidays, at the end of October 1940, Cohen embarked for England and two years of special commando training with the Royal Regiment of Canada.

Cohen was among the nearly one dozen Canadian Jewish infantrymen to be killed at Dieppe.  Meyer Bubis, who was also at the Iceland holiday service, died of wounds weeks later. Lunch counter owner Murray Bleeman was brought back to England for a solemn burial August 24, 1942 with top Canadian military brass in attendance.

If I've whetted your appetite for more, that means this book is something people might buy. As I begin my sabbatical year to complete my own mission of tribute, I hope you follow me on this journey.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Any D-Day veterans are eligible for France's Legion of Honour but hurry! Deadline in July.

Please help spread the word! Veuillez porter la bonne parole !
Posted by Centre Juno Beach / Juno Beach Centre on Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Reposting of this article in the Ottawa Citizen with instructions on how to get the medal for any Canadian veterans who participated in the D-Day landings.

Calling All Canadian D-Day veterans