When the Canadian flag from the Juno Beach Centre arrived at Alex Polowin’s Ottawa condominium in late April, the Second World War veteran wasn’t sure how he was going to display it to anyone.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Polowin, 97, has been careful to follow the government rules against socializing during the recent lockdowns in Ontario.
Now the flag is on public display all week in the lobby of his building as part of a special exhibit to mark the 77th anniversary of D-Day.
“Everybody will see it,” said Judy El-Hakim, a neighbour, who arranged the event. “It’s just a nice D-Day celebration in our building.”
Polowin is one of two Canadian Jewish veterans to receive the unique Juno Beach Centre flags in recognition of their service during D-Day. Over 17,000 Canadians of Jewish faith served in the Second World War. They did so at great personal risk, should they be captured and their religious identity be discovered by the Nazis.
The flag is part of the JBC’s Flag Sponsorship Program, a fundraising campaign where donors receive large Canadian official flags that have actually flown on the flagpoles at the museum in Courseulles-sur-Mer, Normandy. While 100 such flags have been purchased by donors to date, the project coordinator, Lt. Col. (Hon.) Don Foster sent flags as gifts to twenty veterans who are profiled in video interviews on the museum’s website, known as “Legacy of Honour”.
“It’s just keeping the connection and letting them know that they are important to us,” Foster said from his home in Vancouver.
Most Canadian Jewish personnel also experienced antisemitism while in uniform: from their own side.
“In my battery there were a few guys that gave me trouble,” recalled Jewish artillery veteran Norman Cash, 101, who also received a Juno Beach Canadian flag. “They thought that Jews had horns coming out of their heads.”
Cash went overseas to England in 1941, and landed on Juno Beach a couple of days after D-Day, serving as a gunner with the 12th Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery.
“I got into a few fights with them. I was 117 pounds but I was very fast,” Cash told an interviewer from Toronto’s Crestwood Academy in 2019.
Cash has also been staying inside his Toronto home during the pandemic, while waiting for his vaccinations. In recent years, he was a dedicated Poppy Campaign volunteer in Toronto, where he also starred as himself in a popular Canadian Remembrance Day television commercial to honour veterans. He has made multiple media appearances speaking about his service overseas from 1941 to late 1945.
“I was so touched and honored to be chosen as a recipient of a Canadian flag that actually flew on Juno Beach,” Cash said.
The retired taxi driver remembers being ordered to do guard duty on Juno Beach the first night he landed. The guard post was on the top of a French house.
“Bullets were flying all over the place,” Cash recalled, adding “they were still picking up bodies on the beach.”
‘I am a Jew’
Cash’s outfit would fight in the Battle for Falaise, the liberation of Belgium, cross the Rhine into Germany, and end the war in Nijmegan on V-E Day 1945. He remembers the scene in early September 1944 when his unit liberated the Fort Breendonk concentration camp in Belgium, “a Holocaust camp”, Cash called it.
It was one of the harshest Nazi prison camps, where an estimated 4,000 political prisoners and Jews were detained, before being executed there, or sent on to Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz, in Poland.
“When I got there, there were no Jews there, “ Cash said in the video interview with Crestwood Academy. The German camp authorities together with their Belgian SS collaborators had evacuated the camp and sent the remaining prisoners on to Buchenwald, in Germany, as the Allied troops were approaching.
Incensed at what had happened to Europe’s Jewish community in the Holocaust, Cash confronted one of the collaborators now under arrest at Fort Breendonk, south of Antwerp. He told the man, in German “Ich bin a Yude”, which means “I am a Jew”. When the collaborator spat at Cash, then 25, he retaliated with his rifle to mete out some justice.
“I must have broken every bone in his face,” Cash said.
Kept the English Channel clear
For his part, Alex Polowin’s war was spent at sea, on board several Canadian warships and destroyers including HMCS Huron. After surviving the frigid and dangerous North Sea Murmansk convoy runs from Scotland to Russia in the winter of 1943, Huron was sent south in preparation for the Normandy invasion.
In the run up to D-Day, as well as after, Huron patrolled the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay off France, and was later credited with assisting in the disabling of a German destroyer.
Polowin also experienced antisemitism from some of his shipmates during his time in service. They would blame the Jews for starting the war, Polowin said, especially after the crew had received their daily quota of rum. Polowin was only 17 when he enlisted, and was a small man. He chose to ignore the taunts rather than risk fighting, and being thrown overboard “accidentally”.
When the Juno Beach Centre flag arrived at Polowin’s home, it reminded him of his service keeping the English Channel clear of German warships.
“We stopped the Nazis from firing one shot at any of the troops that were landing,” Polowin said. “The flag is very symbolic, when I think of what we did that day.”
‘Real heroes didn’t come back’: Cash
While both men survived the war, nearly 450 Canadians of Jewish faith lost their lives. Those whose bodies were recovered lie buried in military graveyards across Europe, Africa, Asia and in North America, as well.
“I have been called a hero. However, the real heroes are those who didn’t make it back, “ Norman Cash said, explaining that his boyhood friend Max Lampert was one of them. Lampert served with the 48th Highlanders, a mainly Toronto infantry regiment, and was killed in the invasion of Sicily in 1943. “I accept this flag on their behalf. Thank you once again.”
Cash credits his survival to having been blessed before he went overseas by a Toronto rabbi, who told him he would return. And to the lucky 5 cent coin the rabbi gave to him, which he wore on the same chain with his dog tags until after he returned home at war’s end.
While the 77th anniversary of D-Day is being marked in a socially-distant manner again this June, Alex Polowin hopes his new flag can be shown to people outside his building, after the pandemic ends.
“I’m going to put it in the hall leading to the bedroom, where I’ve also got a number of certificates and honours that I want it to be with,” Polowin said. “Anytime anybody wants to come and see it!”
The former able seaman in the Royal Canadian Navy during D-Day is looking forward to resuming his volunteer work speaking about his war experiences at schools across Canada and overseas.
In the meantime, his flag is in the foyer from June 4 to 8, along with the validity certificate showing the day and times when the flag flew on Juno Beach, and several other artifacts from the Second World War.
Organizer Judy El-Hakim has her own ties to the Second World War: her father, Harold Harkes, won a Military Cross while serving as a platoon commander from October 1944 to June 1945 with the Royal Regiment of Canada. Despite being severely wounded in the fighting along the Goch-Calcar Road in Germany in February 1945, then-Lt. Harkes took out a machine gun post, and captured four prisoners. He was 19, having enlisted underage before his true birthdate was discovered.
Harkes, now 96, lives in a veteran’s home in Fredericton, N.B. He remained in the military after the war and was a commanding officer of the Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment in the late 1960s at CFB Gagetown.