Normandy D-Day 70th anniversary: French Jewish community to say Kaddish for the 42 Canadian Jewish servicemen who gave their lives for freedom

George Meltz, in uniform, with a brother, (courtesy Isabella Meltz)
Seventy years ago, a 25 year old Toronto wallpaper salesman, George Meltz, came ashore at Juno Beach in France at the beginning of the D-Day landings, as part of Operation Overlord. He was one of 14,000 Canadian troops who pushed past the entrenched Germans along France's northern coast, despite horrendous casualties. Meltz was a bombardier, with the Royal Canadian Artillery.

He lived for another month, and his family says he was hit by a sniper. He died of his wounds on July 8, 1944.

His tombstone in the Canadian War Cemetery at Reviers, Beny Sur Mer, is one of 20 belonging to Jewish servicemen buried in this cemetery. There are another 22 Jewish Canadian troops buried farther east in the Cintheaux cemetery, near Bretteville-Sur-Laize.  

But Meltz's gravestone, with the inscription "He died so Jewry should suffer no more" has become a symbol, in Toronto, of the motivation that caused many Jewish men to enlist in the Second World War: to fight the Nazis and stop the annihilation of their Jewish brethren in the Holocaust.

Meltz tombstone with inscription, Normandy, John Friedlan photo

Now, Meltz's name and the names of the other 41 Jewish Canadian soldiers in the two locations will be read out during a solemn Jewish memorial anniversary ceremony on Sunday June 8, being organized in Normandy by the CRFI, the main French Jewish federation. 

Organizer Jean-Max Skenadji is holding the Kaddish services at the much larger U.S. Cemetery at Colleville Sur Mer, to honour the 150 American Jewish men who lie buried there.  But now, after I emailed him to ask him to add the Canadian names, Skenadji quickly agreed to read the 42 Canadian names aloud and say Kaddish for them, too.

"NOUS CITERONS LEURS NOMS ET FERONS KADICH A LEUR MEMOIRE," wrote Skenadji in an email on Sunday. 

Just last month, in April, Bombardier Meltz's niece Isabella Meltz, of Toronto, was one of the honoured guests at the Jewish community's official Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony held at the Schwartz Reisman Centre, on Sunday April  27, 2014. She and her cousins, and her daughter, lit one of the six large white memorial candles, representing the liberators.

Ellin Bessner, in Normandy, 2011, John Friedlan photo

I stumbled upon her late uncle's grave in 2011, on a family visit to Normandy, after the urging of colleague Ted Barris, the Canadian military historian and journalist, who has written 17 books on Canada's contribution to the First and Second and Korean and Afghanistan wars. While Barris didn't know about the Meltz story, he had urged me to take my family to see Normandy. The powerful inscription about "So Jewry should suffer no more" was stunning to me, and I wanted to learn more about who this young Toronto man was.

When I returned to Canada, I discovered that his namesake, nephew George Meltz, a real estate agent, lived just a couple of blocks from me in Richmond Hill, Ontario, and was a former president of my synagogue, Beit Rayim Synagogue, also in Richmond Hill. I also discovered his niece, Isabella, is a close friend of my cousin Judy Guttman, and also lives in Toronto. 

I met Isabelle on Remembrance Day in 2011, when Ted Barris invited her to speak about her late uncle, at Centennial College, where Barris and I both teach journalism. Isabelle has a few souvenirs from him, and photos of him in uniform. She also has begun to light a Yahrzeit candle for him every year on the anniversary of his death. But she has not been able to travel to Normandy to visit his grave. 

Isabella Meltz with Ellin Bessner at Centennial College, 2011 (courtesy Toronto Observer)
Toronto lawyer David Matlow also was moved by Meltz's tombstone when he and his wife toured the cemetery last summer. Matlow contacted me when he read my story about Meltz, and Matlow was responsible for having Meltz's relatives participate in the Holocaust Remembrance ceremony. Matlow still talks about Meltz's example when he speaks to donors about making contributions to United Jewish Appeal. Matlow is the producer of a recent documentary about Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Matlow has the world's largest personal connection of 2,500 Herzl artifacts and memorabilia.

The story I wrote for the Canadian Jewish News about Meltz has been shared with  the young participants in Canada's March of the Living, who visit Nazi death camps in Poland before heading for Israel. 

Now, Meltz's story will keep on being told by the French Jewish community, when they say his name, and recite the Kaddish for him on June 8, seventy years after the youngest child of the Meltz family came ashore at Juno Beach and would never come home.

I'll tell you some of the stories of the other 41 Canadian Jews buried in the Beny Sur Mer and Cintheaux cemeteries, in my next post.

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