A Vancouver college student has discovered that he has a lot in common with a Canadian RCAF airman who was killed during the Second World War. This past Remembrance Day, Sam Wise was reading a news story about the international efforts to put a Star of David symbol on the grave of navigator Morley Ornstein, who was shot down over Germany in 1945.
It was a name Wise knew.
“I was kind of taken aback,” the philosophy student said, in a recent interview.
In the end, although Morley Ornstein was not related directly to the Ohrenstein’s in Sam’s family, their relatives did both live in Winnipeg in the early part of the 20th century. And his family had ancestors with the same names as Morley’s parents, Ben and Esther. Even the last name is so similar.
Still, Sam can’t get over the coincidence.
“So I have a picture of my grandmother here. She looks quite a bit like Morley,” Wise said, pulling down a wedding portrait of Linda’s (Ohrenstein) Wise from a shelf behind his apartment desk.
While Morley and his parents moved to Toronto, where he went to high school before enlisting in 1942, Sam’s grandmother Linda Ohrenstein and her parents moved to Vancouver in the 1960s.
After graduating from Harbord Collegiate in Toronto, Morley joined the RCAF in September 1942, when he turned 18. He trained as a navigator, and earned his commission as an officer before heading overseas in the spring of 1944. From April to November of that year, Morley trained on big bombers, then was posted to the RAF’s #101 Squadron in Ludford Magna, England. They flew raids over German-occupied Europe for four months, until a daytime raid against Bremen saw them shot down near the local airport.
Although witnesses said Ornstein survived the parachute jump out of the spinning plane before it crashed, locals told investigators he had been shot by German civilians when he landed.
For 75 years, Ornstein’s grave in the Becklingen War Cemetery has had a tombstone with a cross on it.
“I’m sure there was plenty of chaos at the time,” Wise said, trying to understand how the mistake could have happened. Ornstein wrote in several places on his registration papers that he was Hebrew.
Now, thanks to my work, together with a team of historians in England and Canada, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission agreed to change the tombstone to show Ornstein’s Jewish faith. The story has also been covered by Global News, and the Times of London.
“It’s taken 75 years but it’s well warranted at this point, and it’s good to hear he’s been repatriated in a meaningful way,” Wise said.
The new gravestone was carved in France, and was ready in November, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, it is not known when it will be shipped and installed at the war cemetery in Germany. But just knowing that Morley’s war story is being remembered after so many years means a great deal to Wise, who is the same age as Morley was when he was killed.
“I thought it was kind of neat because he was probably 20 at the time, so I’m also 20 and I thought that was kind of interesting, here I am 75 years later talking about it,” Wise said.
“He was 6 feet tall. I’m the same height as he was. He was a good looking lad. So I’m sure [he would have had a good life],” Wise replied, when asked what he thinks Morley’s future might have been had he survived the war.
Family of war heroes
There is a war hero in the Wise family. Sam’s grandmother Linda had an uncle, Robert A. Gelfand, who was also in the RCAF. Gelfand was also born in Winnipeg, and served with the RCAF’s 432 Squadron as a bomb aimer and navigator. His Halifax bomber was shot down June 17, 1944 over Holland.
“Apparently there were three parachutes on the plane and six crewman, and so they basically had to flip a coin. It’s probably been dramatized a little bit, but that’s what I was told,” he said.
According to Wise, while three of the seven crewmen were killed that night, his great-great-Uncle Gelfand and two crew members were rescued by the Dutch. They spent the next year as evaders hidden in a church steeple in Apeldoorn, until the end of the war.
Sam’s father, Ari Wise, heard a few more details of this while he was growing up.
“The Dutch villagers gave them what they could but they all nearly starved to death there,” Ari said. “They took a considerable risk hiding them.”
Other accounts have Gelfand in a POW camp, surviving by eating grass, until escaping right before V-E Day in May 1945. Whichever version is correct, Gelfand returned safely to England on May 11.
Gelfand’s health was badly impacted by this experience. After the war he married Calgary’s Tanya Volovnik, a WWII veteran herself. Gelfand died, in 1960, at the age of 46, leaving behind a widow and three sons.