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).