Why I led a virtual tour of Normandy cemeteries during COVID-19

For International Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, I was honoured to be able to pay tribute during a virtual tour of Normandy not only to the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, but to the Canadian Jewish soldiers who died in France on D-Day and beyond. Thanks to the magic of Zoom and YouTube, the host of WW2TV Paul Woodage and his camera crews helped our viewers actually see the graves in the hauntingly beautiful Canadian war cemeteries of Beny-sur-Mer and Bretteville-sur-Laize. While our viewers “met” some of the dozens of Canadian Jewish heroes who are buried there, Paul’s team reverently placed special pebbles on each Jewish gravestone, while I narrated the stories of each casualty.

It was an honour to have some of the next of kin with us, live, on the virtual tour’s YouTube stream, including the families of George Meltz, Jack Faibish, Yude Brownstone, Freddie Harris and Joe Gertel. I know other families who could not join in the stream live, but will watch the replay at their convenience, and share it with their relatives.

Here is the show if you would like to re-watch it, or, watch it for the first time.

Lives cut down too soon

The timing of the WW2TV broadcast couldn’t have been more poignant.

It came two days after January 27, which has been designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year, it is also Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for the Trees, which I strongly relate to because my Hebrew name, Ilana, means tree. According to Jewish custom, when a young person dies suddenly, the family sometimes chooses to put up a gravestone in the shape of a cut tree trunk.

You can see one such marker below, erected over the grave of Lance Corporal Norman Middleton, a Jewish Canadian soldier from Thunder Bay, Ont. who died in Scotland in 1942 during the Second World War. As I’ve reported, his comrades in the Canadian Forestry Corps had this evocative tombstone erected for him. Even though he is buried in a Scottish parish church graveyard in Urray, Middleton was born Leon Mendelson.

grave shaped like a tree
The grave of Lance Corporal Norman Middleton, shaped like a tree trunk, in Scotland.

The graveyard is where his Scottish fianceĀ“attended church. Leon/Norman was 33. It isn’t clear whether his comrades knew about the Jewish burial custom, or if his family did it. Either way, it makes me think of young lives cut down too soon. Historian Martin Sugarman recently had the gravestone updated to reflect Middleton’s Jewish faith.

After the world remembers the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah on the International Day for Holocaust Remembrance and the Liberation of Auschwitz, I want to also remember the nearly 450 Canadian troops of Jewish faith who perished too young in the Second World War. In all, 17,000 Canadian Jewish fighters helped defeat Hitler and stopped the Holocaust.

Unlike the victims of the Shoah, these personnel do (mostly) have graves to visit. The war graves are usually located in large cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Most of the million plus gravestones are carved in the standard shape, size and colour that you can see in the photo below.

Ellin at the grave of W.O Abram Arbour, M.C., Bretteville-sur-Laize Cemetery. June 2019.

This photo was taken in June 2019, when I had the privilege of travelling to war cemeteries in Normandy, as part of a #DDay75 trip with my friend and historian Ted Barris. I wrote about many of these men, including W/O Abram Arbour of Narcisse, Manitoba, in my books “Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and WWII” (2018), and “Northern Lights: A Canadian Jewish History” (2020).

The full list of biographies of the 70+ Canadian Jewish men buried in Normandy is here.

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