by Ellin Bessner
A Toronto artist’s year-long quest to learn the identity of the gregarious Jewish war veteran whose portrait she’d painted last year, brought Gerry Virsunen and the canvas to a boardroom at Baycrest Hospital last Sunday. There, at the regular monthly meeting of the Royal Canadian Legion Wingate Branch 256, comprising Jewish Second World War and Korean War veterans, her portrait of Jerry Rosenberg found a new home.
Virsunen, a member of the Don Valley Art Club, met the spry former navy signaller in November 2016, when he was selling poppies outside the Loblaws store at Bathurst and St. Clair in Toronto. She immediately knew that she wanted to paint his portrait. The historic art club was preparing to mark the 150th birthday of Canada, and Virsunen felt the veteran represented an important time in Canadian history. She snapped a photo, but before she could get his name, he had already moved on to sell poppies to other customers.
The painting went on to win an honourable mention in the club’s spring 2017 show, and Virsunen felt that she needed to try once more to find out who the man was, and thank him by presenting him with his portrait, as a gift.
She searched in vain, even calling several branches of the Legion, until Remembrance Week this year, when she returned to the same grocery store, hoping to find people there selling poppies who might recognize the painting. Sure enough, a couple from the Jewish Legion was there, on poppy duty, and quickly knew who the portrait was.
Sadly, Gerald “Jerry” Rosenberg, a Hamilton native, had died suddenly in August, at Sunnybrook Hospital, after a long career of volunteering, including as former president of the Wingate branch of the Legion.
Virsunen presented the portrait to Shelley Rosen, the branch’s current president, and to Morris Polansky, 96, an army veteran who served in Italy during the Second World War, and survived the torpedoing of his troopship off the coast of Algeria that threw him into the sea in November 1943.
“I was very inspired and certain faces inspire me,” Virsunen told the veterans, adding that while donating the portrait to Rosenberg’s friends was the right thing to do, “I’m going to miss him.” Virsunen explained that the portrait sat on her easel while she conducted her search. “I felt he was following me.”
The portrait may have one more journey to make: the Jewish veterans will try to present it, in turn, to Rosenberg’s surviving family, although most of them do not live in Toronto.
Rosenberg, who also fought in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 for the Jewish state’s fledgling navy, was one of the most successful poppy campaigners, according to Stuart MacPherson, a Wingate branch official.
“Gerry, God rest his soul, collected hundreds and hundreds and this year, of course, we miss him,” MacPherson told the meeting. Yet despite Rosenberg’s absence from his usual territory, he would have been pleased to learn that the branch’s 2017 campaign brought in $10,000 more than last year, despite having fewer volunteers and a larger area to canvas.