Roméo Dallaire honours Montreal veteran at ceremony

Medal for George Nashen, 97, a Canadian Jewish WWII RCAF veteran

Lieut.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, one of Canada’s most famous soldiers and humanitarians, presented a new medal to one of Canada’s longest-surviving WWII veterans. The recipient, George Nashen, is a retired Montreal clothing manufacturer who served for four years, including overseas, with the RCAF. Nashen, 97, received the Quebec National Assembly Citizenship Medal during a virtual ceremony held via Zoom.

“George is still with us, one the lasting veterans of the incredible war,” Dallaire said in his remarks, mentioning how Dallaire’s own father also served overseas in that same war. “As my Dad used to say, ‘You serve not to get thanks but because you feel the cause is just and right’.”

Nashen was studying to be an accountant when the Second World War broke out in 1939, although he was too young to enlist, yet. As the son of Jewish immigrants, Nashen says he used to hear the discussions around the table about the danger Hitler posed to his people, and the world.

Hear what George Nashen’s family knew about Hitler when the war broke out.

When his closest friend Jacob H. Singer signed up to be a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Nashen followed suit.

“Much to the chagrin of my dear mother, I volunteered at age 19,” Nashen said, adding that he, too, hoped to be a fighter pilot.

But he failed the eye exams due to colour blindness.

george nashen in uniform WWII
George Nashen portrait from WWII. (Courtesy George Nashen).

One of the Saddest Days

The air force would put Nashen’s skills with numbers to use in the accounting office at the RCAF overseas headquarters in London, England. It was a scary time because he went to work each day “not knowing what tomorrow would bring.”

He was there during the period of the infamous German long range V1 “buzz bomb” and V2 rockets that rained down on London and parts of England, and left 30,000 civilian casualties.

“I bore witness to some of the worst of the bombings of London,” Nashen recalled, One such attack left 30 babies dead at a nearby children’s hospital, he said, adding that he had run over to offer help.

“It was too late,” he said. “This was one of the saddest days of my life.”

Nashen would also have to deal with the grief of losing close friends in the war, including that high school chum Jacob “Jay” Harry Singer. Singer was the bomb aimer of a Lancaster crew with the RAF’s 44 Squadron. The plane was lost in July 1944. Their remains were never found.

Jacob Jay Harry Singer in uniform WWII
Military records of Jacob H. Singer, from Library and Archives Canada. (Ellin Bessner photo)

Experienced Antisemitism

While serving in uniform, Nashen did experience antisemitism, although he mostly ignored it. However, he did respond with force to one particular tormentor. It happened during his time in London. Nashen’s antagonist wound up with his head shoved inside a toilet.

As one of 17,000 Canadians of Jewish faith who served in WWII, Nashen contributed to the Allied defeat of Hitler, and the liberation of Europe.

“Having proudly worn the Canada emblem on my uniform during World War II, [it] showed the devotion and pride I had and continue to have to be able to represent my country,” Nashen said.

That is a legacy that hits resonates for Dallaire, personally.

“George, you served and gave yourself for this country, for those who suffered in those foreign lands,…so they could come and seek the serenity here in this country,” Dallaire said.

Born in the aftermath of WWII

Dallaire was alluding to his own origins. The son of a Dutch nurse who met and married a Canadian soldier during the war, Dallaire himself was born in Denekamp, Holland in June 1946, about a year after the fighting stopped. He said his mother had lived through the destruction of the country’s Jewish community during the Holocaust.

“She saw their neighbours being taken away,” Dallaire said. Denekamp’s entire Jewish population perished during the Holocaust.

general romeo dallaire
Lieut.-Gen. (Ret.) Roméo Dallaire speaking via Zoom at the National Assembly Citizenship medal ceremony on June 16, 2020 .

Dallaire’s parents would move to Canada with their infant son in late 1946, passing through Pier 21 in Halifax on their way to set up a home in Montreal. A career military officer, Dallaire rose through the ranks beginning in 1964.

In the early 1990s, he became famous while serving as commander of a UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda. Dallaire’s small group troops could not stop the 100-day-long genocide of 800,000 mainly Tutsi civilians carried out by the Hutu ethnic majority. Dallaire had begged his UN superiors to send reinforcements, to no avail. Indeed, ten of Dallaire’s own soldiers were massacred while protecting the Rwandan Prime Minister, who was also killed.

Dallaire’s subsequent struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder saw him leave the military. He has devoted his life since then to conflict resolution and humanitarian work, especially for child soldiers.

“We are at war”: Dallaire

The medal ceremony was organized by David Birnbaum, the Liberal Member of Quebec’s National Assembly for the D’Arcy McGee riding, where Nashen lives with his wife, Phyllis. Aside from Nashen, three other community members or groups received the award for their volunteering during the COVID-19 crisis.

Lately, Dallaire has been doing what he can — from his living room — to support those front-line workers battling against the pandemic. Now 74, he says everyone has to help those who are psychologically injured, and those who are vulnerable, such as seniors like himself and Nashen.

“We are starting to see a bit, but not enough, of young people communicating with the elderly to give them hope that we are not alone and we are gonna beat this thing,” Dallaire said, via Zoom.

It’s a message echoed by Nashen, who called on young people to give back to the community the way he did.

“To all the young people who are watching, remember my statement and please serve your country with all your heart,” Nashen said.

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