A Belgian tour guide and historian, Niko Van Kerckhoven, wrote to me recently.
Van Kerckhoven, 50, and his teenaged son, regularly visit the graves of the Canadian soldiers who were killed liberating his town, called Wommelgem, during the Battle of the Scheldt.
This was the Canadian campaign in the area surrounding the crucial port of Antwerp in the fall of 1944. It cost over 6,000 Canadian casualties to take it, including that of Jewish volunteer Pte. Paul Sklut.
Von Kerckhoven has found photos of nearly all of the Canadian “boys” whose graves he visits, but not Sklut’s. As he writes to me, “I’m quite desperate, You are pretty much my last chance for a picture!”
Paul Sklut was the son of Russian Jewish parents, and the family lived on Ferndale Avenue in Vancouver. It was a short walk to Britannia High School, where he was in the cadet corps, before he graduated.
Sklut’s name was often mentioned in the Vancouver newspapers for he played competitive tennis, and also gave piano recitals at a venue on Granville Street.
Sklut was studying at UBC when he was called up. He had just turned 19 on April 15, 1943. His two brothers, Harry and Donald, were already in uniform, with the army and the RCAF respectively. Sklut qualified as an Infantry Signaller in Kingston, Ont., then shipped out for England in July 1944.
He was sent to France on Sept. 11, 1944, now attached to the Calgary Highlanders. He was sent into action on Sept. 26.
Twelve days later, he was dead.
“Many of them were just arriving here in Europe when they were thrown in this terrible battle of the Scheldt. I know the area well,” Van Kerckhoven writes. “Many of the replacements died due to lack of training and experience. They really were used to plug the gaps in the infantry, although they were specialists by trade.”
Sklut was wounded on Oct. 8, 1944 and brought to a Canadian medical station that the RCAMC had set up inside one of the 19th century forts near Antwerp, known as Fort 2, in Wommelgem. Military records confirm this happened.
Canadian medical personnel with the 18th Canadian Field Ambulance received Sklut at 13:00 hours. He was in really bad shape: he’d already lost his right leg at the knee, and his left leg and knee were fractured. He also had shell wounds in his chest and abdomen.
By 14:00 hours, Sklut was evacuated to the 21st Canadian Field Dressing Station, and, then, still in shock, they took him to the 9th Canadian Field Dressing Station, where he died at 16:30 hours.
He was 20 years old.
Locals buried Sklut with other foreign soldiers, about 40 of them, mostly Canadians, in the civilian area of the Candoncklaer Hospital Cemetery in Wommelgen. Later their bodies were reinterred at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Bergen-op-Zoom, across the border in Holland.
That’s where my Belgian correspondent visits Skult’s grave. De Kerckhoven is a member of his local historical society in Wommelgen, known as “De Kaeck”.
He would like to find the Sklut family, and a photo of Paul Sklut, to tell them their relative has not been forgotten.
Please help this lovely man as he continues to carry out a mitzvah, although I am not sure he is aware of what that word means. (I will explain it.)
Just weeks after this story was published, the intrepid history grapevine in western Canada has come through! The editor of the Jewish newspaper in Vancouver, Cynthia Ramsay, did a search of her paper’s archives and found the photo and announcement of Paul Sklut’s death.
The paper was issued on Friday Oct. 27, 1944, with the front page story.
Also thanks to all of you who helped look for Paul Sklut, especially Karen Hunter, and Karl Kjarsgaard, plus Ed Fitch, and the staff at the Vancouver cemeteries and Jewish museums.