My D-Day75 pilgrimage to Normandy

Dateline: Courseulles-sur-Mer, France:

            You sure attract a lot of attention when you ride through the streets of Normandy in a convoy of dark green, restored Second World War military vehicles. The crowds of French people lining the streets on Saturday June 8 took photos of us and waved at us, and we waved back, all decked out as we were with our Canadian flags and red and white lapel pins.

            It felt strange, but also a little like we were channeling a tiny bit of what the Allied troops must have experienced when they stormed the beaches here and liberated this area seventy-five years ago this week, in June 1944.

            I was travelling with a group of Canadians as part of author Ted Barris’ D-Day 75th Anniversary tour. For ten days, we retraced the steps of the Allied invasion that turned the tide of the Second World War.  

            The trip began in London, at the Churchill War Rooms, and HMS Belfast, and we also toured Bletchley Park where mathematician Alan Turing helped invent the computer that cracked the secret codes of the German Enigma machines.

Actual Cabinet war room table inside the Churchill War Rooms (London, England)./Ellin Bessner photo.

            Our tour continued south with a night in Portsmouth, where the Queen and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined U.S. President Donald Trump and British PM Theresa May at the official U.K. D-Day 75 ceremony. We got to see the rehearsals and security preparations only: the actual event was the next day, when we departed on a six-hour ferry crossing of the English Channel, to “land” in France on the eve of D-Day. We attended the official Canadian D-Day ceremony the next day on June 6 at Juno Beach, but I will write more about that in the coming days.

Stage where official U.K. commemoration was being held in Portsmouth, England. (Ellin Bessner photo.)

            After that, it was a daylong road trip in the back of a vintage American army truck taking us to landmarks that are meaningful to the Canadian army regiments who struggled to oust the German defenders here during the months of June-August 1944.

Ellin poses in front of the vintage army vehicle during the D-Day Academy Parade. June 8, 2019

            For me, this trip was a fitting milestone on a journey that began in July 2011 when I first visited Normandy. It was there at the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, that a particular grave launched me on a mission to research the stories of the nearly 17,000 Canadians of Jewish faith who served in WWll. Even before the publication of my book “Double Threat” in 2018, I had long dreamed of coming back to where it started — to the grave of Bombardier George Meltz, 25, of Toronto. He was killed July 8, 1944. All those years ago, I knew only his name, and what was written on his tombstone:

He died so Jewry shall suffer no more.

            But now, I know his life story intimately, as well as that of the other 70 Canadians of Jewish faith who lie buried in war cemeteries across Normandy.

            So, on a rainy, overcast Friday morning, with a busload of new friends, most of whom are not Jewish and had not read my book yet, we gathered around George Meltz’s grave, and we said the traditional Hebrew prayers — the Kaddish —in memory of someone who has died.

            A memorial candle was lit and placed beside George’s grave. And a pile of small stones soon covered the top of his Portland granite tombstone with the Star of David on it. And I told George that the world now knows his name, that his family is proud of him, and that he has become a symbol of the Jewish soldiers who came to Europe as liberators, to end Hitler’s Final Solution.

Ellin saying prayers in June 2019 while visiting the grave of a Toronto Jewish soldier killed near Juno Beach in 1944.

            Dale Reid, of Richmond Hill, Ont., is a Canadian of Japanese descent whose own family was interned by the Canadian government as enemy aliens during the war. She was in tears as she paid tribute to the young Jewish soldier for whom his grieving 19-year-old British war bride, Trudy, ordered the inscription engraved on George’s permanent gravestone so long ago.

            And it was a similar scene at the subsequent cemeteries we visited: my travelling companions from all across Canada, who have limited knowledge of the Jewish community, started scouting out the graves of the “boys” on my list.

            “Here’s one,” called Jayne MacAuley, of Uxbridge, Ont., waving at me from the extreme back section of the Bretteville sur Laize cemetery. It was the grave of a soldier with whose family I have a special connection.

            Albert Tweyman was a Toronto office worker who was called up by the Canadian Army in 1941. He kept applying to the Royal Canadian Air Force, but he couldn’t find his parents’ naturalization papers proving the Polish Jewish immigrants were actually now Canadians. Without the papers, the RCAF turned him away.

            Eventually Tweyman was ordered overseas with the Essex Scottish Rifles. Before he shipped out from Camp Ipperwash for Halifax, and the troopship to take him across the Atlantic, Albert wrote to his sister back home on Dundas Street in Toronto. He had a special request.

            “If it isn’t too much trouble, could you send me a Voorsht?” he asked her, referring to the spicy Kosher salami so beloved by many Jewish servicemen.

            Tweyman had volunteered to go overseas in order to follow his best friend Mac Latner. Latner made it back after the war, but Albert was killed in France in 1944.

            After we said the Kaddish, I told Albert that his twin brother Jack Tweyman is still alive, and remembers him, and was also saying the Kaddish, except it was for Jack’s wife Edith, who died in May.

            I also told him that I wish I could have fulfilled his food order from all those years ago. I did what I could: I left a green apple, and a long piece of fresh, French baguette on his grave. It has the same shape as a kosher salami, I thought.

            Thanks to our accommodating tour guide Edward Foster, who grew up in a Jewish area of London, England, and thanks to my wonderful travelling companions who were on this unforgettable trip for their own reasons, not for mine, our group was able to visit nearly 40 graves of Jewish Canadian fallen.

            At Dieppe, we got to all six graves, including Lionel Cohen, Maurice Greenberg, Paul Magner, Leizer Heiftez, Louis Goldin, and Morris Lozdon. They were all killed in the doomed August 19, 1942 raid on the seaside French port.

            At the Pegasus Bridge museum in Ranville, I asked the staff how I could get a taxi to the Ranville War Cemetery. Ranville was the first French village to be liberated on the morning of June 6, 1944 after the British and Canadian gliders launched their paratroopers. They jumped behind enemy lines to destroy key bridges in the area, ahead of the actual beach invasion.

            The cemetery was only a five-minute drive away, (or a 27-minute walk on a crowded highway with no sidewalks), but I was running out of time before our bus left. I feared I’d have to give up on finding the graves of two Montreal men who died in the opening hours of the D-Day invasion.

            A local French documentary maker and publisher was selling books in the museum’s lobby and overheard me. He learned I was Jewish, quickly confided to me that his wife is also Jewish, and that they had tried to immigrate to Canada following the terrorist attacks against Jews in Paris, but had been rejected by the Immigration department for being too old (he is 63). Then he told me to follow him to the parking lot, because he would take us to the cemetery, with pleasure. I didn’t hesitate. I felt that some Divine hand was making this happen. My friend, Gayle Kwinter, felt the same way, and came with me.

Ellin with Paul Le Trevier and Gayle Kwinter, Pegasus Bridge Museum, Ranville.

            Paul Le Trevier certainly didn’t have to help us. He has every right to hate the Allies, especially the Americans. His entire family as killed when an American bomb fell on their house in Rouen during the war, leaving his late father, then a young boy, as the only survivor. The story of how that happened is now in a film about the American pilot who dropped the bomb. It’s called “From Rouen to Hiroshima”, and tells how aviator Paul Tibbets would later become famous as the pilot who dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese city and helped bring an end to the Second World War.

            Thanks to Paul, we found the Ranville military cemetery, beautifully maintained behind the historic Notre Dame church. The church still sports visible signs of shrapnel damage on the bricks from the battle to take this area.

            We found both of the graves I had come to visit: that of Nathan Berger, a wireless air gunner from Montreal, who was the uncle of my friend Issie Berger. And Alec Ellis Flexer, also a Montrealer, from the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.

Grave of Alex Ellis Flexer, 1st Canadian Para Battalion, Ranville War Cemetery. (Ellin Bessner photo).

            Berger’s Dakota was carrying paratroopers to France at dawn on D-Day. They were to destroy key bridges along the Orne River and around Pegasus Bridge to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the landing beaches ahead of H-Hour later that D-Day. The plane was hit before the drop zone, and crashed near Colombelles, a suburb of Caen. All but one of the 23 people on board (4 airmen and 19 paratroopers) were killed. The locals buried them there first in a communal grave, and later, the remains were moved to Ranville.

            Nathan’s distraught mother Sarah wrote the Canadian government several heart-wrenching letters during and after the war, begging for more details about Nathan’s resting place, and how she could get there to see it. She even asked for financial help to do so.

Mrs. Sarah Berger, Library and Archives Canada. (Ellin Bessner photo)

            “I know it will be several years yet before I can get there but my life’s remaining wish is to see my son’s grave. Is it possible to put up a monument?” she wrote in October 1945.

            Sarah Berger died in 1953 without having made the trip.

            Alec Flexer was also killed on D-Day. He was in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. Of the 543 men who went in, 84 were killed. As luck would have it, Flexer could have been assigned to jump from Nathan Berger’s plane, as Berger’s 233 Squadron sent 30 Dakotas that evening to participate in Operation Tonga which involved U.S., British and Canadian paratroopers. Flexer could also have been in one of the Horsa gliders being towed by Berger’s squadron. Back home in Canada, Alec’s mother carried her Silver Cross medal for years, in her purse. The government sent it to all widows and mothers of those killed in the war. In 1985, she was mugged, and the purse was stolen. She wrote to Ottawa asking for a replacement. The government charged her $4.50 for a new one!

            It was rainy and windy when we found Alec Flexer’s grave, and we couldn’t get the memorial candle to stay lit. Paul Le Trevier, our non-Jewish escort, promised he would come back in better weather, and light the candle and place it on the grave himself.

            On Sunday, I visited the grave of Lt. John Orrell Levine, of Inverness, N.S. by myself at Hottot les Bagues War Cemetery. He was a CANLOAN officer, that means he had volunteered to be seconded to the British Army. A journalist and graduate of Acadia University, Levine had just celebrated his 21st birthday when he was killed on July 2, 1944 during the breakout from the Normandy beaches.            

Levine was one of three Jewish men from the small Cape Breton community of Inverness lost in the war.  Subsequently, the Inverness residents designed a special stained-glass window to honour the Hebrew trio, which they installed in one of the community’s churches.

            Visiting Levine had an extra significance because I had recently travelled to Cape Breton to speak at the Temple Sons of Israel historic synagogue in Sydney for Yom HaShoah. The local community reminded me about him.  More recently so did our own, real, live Canadian Jewish WWll veteran, Dr. Bill Novick, who was the honoured guest during our trip.         

            Novick, 95, is a decorated RCAF bomber pilot who won a Distinguished Flying Cross in 1945. The Montreal physician completed 35 missions over German-occupied Europe in 1944, including on D-Day itself, bombing a key bridge and gun emplacement in the Ranville area.

Dr. Bill Novick, RCAF Bomber pilot, WWII Veteran, at Juno Beach, June 6, 2019. Ellin Bessner photo.

            Novick knew Levine’s family, especially Levine’s older sister Edith, who was overseas serving as a nurse and was friends with Novick’s older sister Rosie, also a combat nurse and ambulance driver.

            When I asked how he had managed to stay alive all through the war, and keep his seven-man Halifax crew alive, despite the staggeringly high casualty rate for Bomber Command fliers, Novick explained that he kept a very business-like working environment during his missions.

            “It was very important that there was no chatter over the Intercom in the mask,” he said.  “The order that I gave was ‘Nobody say anything unless it was absolutely important.’ The radio operator was monitoring a screen and, on the screen, there were dips, and each dip was a plane so usually the bombers surrounding you went at the same speed so if he saw a dip coming from a different direction or a different speed he would tell the gunners ‘Look port right!’ and then I would await the order to do any corkscrewing.”

Dr. Bill Novick, 95, with Ellin, on board a ferry heading for Normandy. June 5, 2019.

            Novick’s skill as a pilot certainly had a lot to do with their survival. He was able to fly raids from his RCAF 433 Squadron base in England to bomb German cities such as Cologne and Brunswick, while dodging return fire from the Luftwaffe fighters, and from anti-aircraft shells below.

            “We used to come back with holes [in the plane]. Nothing major,” he said, nonchalantly. “Once, an engine was put out of commission, but we managed on three engines.”

            The Air Force recognized Novick’s skill, too, aside from awarding him the DFC. He was eventually asked to join the elite Pathfinder force once he’d completed his first tour in September 1944, but he decided against it in order not to break up his crew.

Watch Dr. Bill Novick being interviewed by CBC News June 5, 2019:

            During our trip, Novick often paid tribute to the 14,000 Canadians who took part in the D-Day landings on foot, starting right here at Courseulles Sur Mer, known better as Juno Beach. He knows that he could easily have been one of them, had he waited until his army call up came to the house in Montreal.

            “I would have been conscripted, alright?” he told me, explaining why instead of staying safely in Canada, Novick put aside his dreams of going on to medical school and volunteered with the RCAF. “At least I slept in sheets, I didn’t sleep in the mud.”

From left: (Rear) Vita Novick, Dr. Bill Novick, Rick Dixon.
(Front:) Charlie Dixon) Driver: Not shown was Dr. Jean -Pierre Benamou, D-Day Academy. (Ellin Bessner photo)

            Novick got to ride at the head of our little convoy that Saturday through the invasion beaches. He was in the command Jeep driven by the director of the D-Day Academy, military historian Dr. Jean-Pierre Benamou, 71, also a retired dentist. When the French skies clouded over, and the Normandy beaches were drenched by a rainstorm that soaked all of the riders in our convoy, including in two large army trucks, in an open DUKW boat, and in the Jeep. Novick, stoicly, didn’t complain.

            Benamou, who grew up in Normandy after the war, said Novick did a lot better under the circumstances than Britain’s King George Vl. Legend has it that the very DUKW boat in our convoy was the one that carried the King here on June 16, 1944, after the monarch arrived in Normandy to visit the Allied troops.

            Unlike Dr. Novick, we were told, apparently the King got seasick.

Wartime photo of the King George Vl in the actual DUKW vehicle, June 1944. Courtesy IWM.
The same DUKW vehicle in our convoy, June 8, 2019. Ellin Bessner photo.

1 thought on “My D-Day75 pilgrimage to Normandy”

  1. Thank-you for this. My grandfather, Fraser Cooke, landed in Normandy and survived. Always looking for more stories about what it was like at the time. He never spoke about the war. He participated in the planning of DDay, and became Brigadier General later towards the end of it. I follow Ellin on Twitter and look forward to more tweets. ~

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