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

Monday, May 25, 2015

How a Montreal radio show host discovered his father's rescuer in the Second World War

Leslie Lutsky is a Montreal radio show host, on Radio Centreville, and also works as a tour guide taking visitors around the historic places relevant to Montreal's Jewish heritage. He also spends time at the Canadian Jewish Congress Archives, located in the basement of a Concordia University building in Montreal. 

That's where I met him, last summer, while I was researching for my new book about Canadian Jewish servicemen and women who were killed in uniform in the Second World War.

One day, the director of the archives, Janice Rosen, introduced us, and Leslie told me that his own father had been in the war, and had been wounded. I immediately looked up his father's name in the Congress casualty lists, and there he was, Moses Lutsky, on page 104. The short entry reads:

Guardsman Moses Lutsky, of Montreal, was reported wounded in action in France on September 18, 1944. He enlisted in the army in June 1940, and went overseas in 1942. Lutsky was repatriated aboard the British hospital ship Aba in November, 1944.  Born in 1921, Gdsmn. Lutsky is the son of Mr. and Mrs. J Lutsky of 3705 Park Avenue. He is a member of the Y.M.H.A. A brother, Louis Lutsky, served with the R.C.O.C. in Italy. 

And there is a small photo of a non-wounded, smiling, 20-something Moe Lutsky, posing for the military's official photographers in a photo taken, I assume, well before he went overseas.

Last summer, Leslie told me a little about his father: Moe had lost both his feet during the war. But Leslie also told me that his father had not really talked about his war experiences.  Then Leslie invited me to do an interview for his weekly Saturday morning radio show, "Jewish Digest" on Radio Centreville, about my research.  We weren't able to schedule the interview then, and we lost touch.

A few weeks ago, I was reading Mark Zuehlke's book "Breakout from Juno", and nearly fell off my chair because on page 328, Zuehlke talks about the Grenadier Guards battles in France, and how they came under heavy German fire near Point 195 on August 10, 1944, during the Canadian Army's efforts to close the Falaise Gap and cut off the retreating Germans.  It was part of Operation Totalize, two months after the D-Day landings. 

Breakout from Juno Page 328-329
The author tells the story of what happened to Guardsman Moe Lutsky and the attack on his Sherman tank. 

According to Zuehlke's research, a "shell tore into Sgt. John Henry Andrew's Sherman and he ordered the crew out. As Andrews turned to run, he heard Guardsman M. Lutsky crying from inside the tank. Climbing back in, Andrews say his gunner had both fleet blown off. Andrews lifted Lutsky out, lowering him to the ground. Kneeling beside the flaming wreckage, Andrews wrapped a tourniquet around each stump to stem the gushing blood. Then he carried Lutsky to an improvised aid post on the hill. Andrews stayed there the rest of the day giving medical aid to the wounded. He was awarded a Military Medal."

A quick Internet search uncovered a blog post or two by the late Moses Lutsky's niece about her heroic "Uncle Moe", with her recollections of Lutsky determined to learn to walk with his two prosthetic legs, and eventually becoming  the "tallest member of Dad's family". 

I was excited and at the same time, hesitant, and wasn't sure whether I should contact Leslie after all this time, and tell him what I'd discovered: that his father had been wounded August 10, not Sept. 14, and that a heroic Canadian tank sergeant had saved his father's life and been awarded a medal for his actions. I worried that I would upset Leslie, or that perhaps it wasn't my place to stir up old wounds after so many years.

But after a few days, I did contact Leslie and asked him if he wanted to know. He said he did. And so I sent him the links. 

He told me it was very emotional for both him and his sister to read about this, but that they were also excited to try to find their long-lost cousin who had blogged about their father, and that they would also try to track down the soldier who had rescued their father to see if he was still alive.

While the Lutsky children absorbed the precious details of their father's ordeal and subsequent rescue, Leslie and I agreed to meet in Montreal for that long, postponed radio interview. We met at - where else? - the archives of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and spent a lovely half hour recording our chat.

While I didn't spill the beans on-air about Lutsky's own personal journey, what happened with his father's story is something that I am experiencing a lot as I contact and interview the surviving siblings and children and next of kin of the 430+ Canadian Jewish servicemen and women who I am writing about for my book. Often, I know more about their late uncle or aunt and what happened to them, than the families do. For one thing, there was no Facebook, or LinkedIn in the 1940s, and without the luxury of the Internet, there was no way for them to get the War Diaries, or personnel service files of their loved ones. 

Now, 70 years later, I do hope that my work not only sheds a light on an important but untold story of the contribution of Canada's Jewish community to the country's war efforts, but also brings some comfort or closure to the 400+ families whose loved ones went off to war and didn't come home. 

If you know a Canadian Jewish serviceman who was killed during the Second World War, either at home, or overseas, please get in touch with me via my email at

You can hear the podcast of our interview here, courtesy of Radio Centreville.

You can reach Leslie Lutsky for a tour, through his Facebook Page, or Radio Centreville.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Jewish Canadian Second World War hero remembered by Canadians touring Holland for the 70th anniversary of the Liberation

Thankful to Ted Barris, author of "The Great Escape" who is leading a tour group through Holland this week, and went to...
Posted by Kaddish for D-Day 2014 on Saturday, May 9, 2015