How a Jewish RCAF airman’s wartime love letter was restored to his Toronto sons, 74 years after it was written

Two sets of cufflinks. Some WWll service medals. A watch. A few photographs. Until now, these were all the physical heirlooms that the Colman siblings had left of their father Abe Colman, a Second World War veteran from Toronto who died half a century ago. But thanks to the gesture of a North York woman, Eleanor Maxwell, they now also have a treasured letter from their father, written while he was in uniform in 1943.

Maxwell, a retired teacher, found the wartime letter nearly forty years ago on her front lawn.

“Now this literally blew into my face on Denmark Crescent,” Maxwell said July 12, when she met Abe Colman’s three sons and presented them with the old letter.  “I thought, you know what, I’ll pick it up.”

Maxwell thinks the letter blew up the street in the Bathurst and Finch area sometime between 1972 and 1979, when she and the Colmans’ mother lived for a time on the same street in North York:  Colman at No. 12 Denmark Crescent and the Maxwells at No. 2. The families didn’t know each other.

Maxwell says she immediately realized the letter was old because the envelope was postmarked December 29, 1943, and it had a 4 cent stamp with the image of King George on the front.  It was addressed to a Mrs. A. Colman, 535 Palmerston Boulevard, Toronto. The return address was from Aircraftman A. Colman, posted at the Royal Canadian Air Force training school in Rockcliffe, Ontario, and now part of Ottawa.

For years, Maxwell tried to trace the name. But that was before the internet and Google.

“Eventually, I couldn’t find anyone so I did open and read the letter and I thought, ‘It’s too personal’ and I felt very upset reading it.” she acknowledged.  But the letter alluded to a baby, and she thought someday she might be able to find him. “The husband dearly loved his wife and this should be kept for someone to find and to locate and for years, I put it aside.”

In 2015, the Maxwells travelled to Holland with Canadian author and military historian Ted Barris — Maxwell’s husband Martin, 92, was wounded and captured in Arnhem in 1944 and held prisoner by the Nazis during the Second World War — and Barris suggested they ask me to try to trace the Colman family. I am a Toronto journalist and author, and have written a new book about Canada’s 17,000 Jewish servicemen and women who fought Hitler in the Second World War.  “Double Threat” is being published on November 11, 2017 by New Jewish Press at the University of Toronto.

It didn’t take long to trace Colman’s oldest son, Dr. Jack Colman, who just turned 75, and works as a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

“The baby is me. I was born in June 1942,” Colman confirmed during the emotional meeting in the Maxwell’s Toronto apartment. “This (letter) is December 1943. He volunteered when I was a year old. He got into the air force when I was a year old.”

Colman’s brothers Yechiel (Gene), now a lawyer in Toronto, and Neil, a Montreal respirologist, were also at the Maxwells, although Neil attended via Facetime, because he was on holiday in Italy.  Gene read his father’s four-page letter aloud, halting frequently, between sobs. His father Abe, then 26, had just spent his Christmas leave in Toronto with his 22-year-old wife Henrietta, and the baby, Jack, who would have been 18 months old.

“Right now my darling I’m too tired to realize how much I miss you. I know it must be hard.  I know it must be a great deal because I felt like crying when I said goodbye. And you know…I’m even close to tears. The few days with you, dear wife, were the sweetest in my life for the last long while. Now I have only to wait one month and then we’ll be together for another few days of heaven. Kisses to you and the baby.”

According to the Colmans, their parents began their married life in a third floor apartment of a Palmerston Avenue home, in the heart of Toronto’s Jewish quarter. Both were children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who had fled antisemitism and pogroms for a new life in Canada.  Abe Colman became a chartered accountant, and Henrietta, known as Toots, worked as a model at a dress and coat factory on Spadina Avenue.

“I paid Mrs. Klein $1.00 per day to look after Jack,” says the caption in her handwriting beside some glamour shots in a photo album Gene still has from those days.

Abe Colman served a photographer for the RCAF, and went overseas in the last two years of the war. He carried out aerial reconnaissance of German troop positions and other strategic targets.

“He would lie down on his stomach in the airplane to take photos, that was the technology of the day,” explained Gene, who was born in 1950, after his father came back from overseas. “They would fly over enemy lines to take reconnaissance photos. He volunteered for the RCAF, and risked his life so the Allies would win the war and we’re here. And I’m sure many miracles [happened so] that he survived.”

Both Jack and Gene also remember a wooden crate that their father stored under the stairs when they were growing up in North York after the war, but Abe never talked about it to them. It contained some of his wartime photos. Jack knows what was in there because he used to rifle through the contents, as a child, even though he knew he wasn’t supposed to. One photo showed Abe in uniform standing beside a downed German warplane bearing a swastika marking. Jack remembers seeing photos of concentration camp scenes, probably Bergen-Belsen. Although he was never told what his father did there, Canadian personnel were among those who encountered the horrors of the German camp, and the emaciated survivors. It was liberated in mid-April 1945.

“From then on, he would never buy a German product,” said Neil Colman. “No, he never bought a German product, ever,” confirmed Jack.

Sadly, the Colmans’ parents’ marriage didn’t last past 1966. Henrietta Colman, now divorced and with three adult children, moved out of her Denmark Crescent home in 1979.

“Our mother was throwing stuff out before she moved to Florida,” said Jack, speculating that this is when the father’s wartime letter was lost, probably tossed out in the garbage.  Henrietta moved to Boca Raton, remarried twice, and died in 2009. Abe Colman also remarried, but the marriage was cut short when he died in 1971, at the age of 53, of a brain tumour.

For Gene Colman, sitting in the Maxwells’ den and holding his father’s handwritten letter, the recovery of this family treasure is so meaningful. Gene is a father of seven, and a family law lawyer who has devoted his career to helping couples navigate divorce, child custody, spousal support, and parental alienation issues.

“It feels as if our father has reached from beyond the grave to communicate to us the importance of family, the importance of a family sticking together, the importance of being a father,” Gene said, noting that on August 8, 2017 it would have been their father Abe’s 100th birthday.

“We are so grateful to you for bringing this back,” Neil told Eleanor Maxwell.

“Now you can show it to your grandchildren,” Eleanor replied, wiping tears from her own eyes. “It was such a fluke but I had a feeling in my heart there was something that would come out of it, I just felt that I had to hang on to the letter. “

“She always thought we were gonna find you,” agreed her husband, Martin, addressing the Colman sons. “All I can say is if your father would be alive he would have naches (pride, in Yiddish) from all of you, the three of you, God bless you!”

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