“Sparkling” Canadian navy veteran Alex Polowin charmed hundreds, even the Queen

Alex Polowin, who lied about his age to fight Nazis in Europe, dedicated his life to peace and education.

At 98, Alex Polowin, one of Canada’s most prominent Second World War veterans, passed away at his home in Ottawa. He was the last surviving veteran of HMCS Huron, who, after the war, spoke regularly to thousands of people across Canada and Europe about his experience as a 17-year-old Jew fighting Nazis. He saw action on D-Day and served in the Soviet Union and Northern Scotland; he helped sink a German battleship; and he even charmed political leaders, including Queen Elizabeth, with his gentle humour and harmonica skills.

In his twilight years, he became good friends with me and my family. We forged a bond, over the phone, particularly during the pandemic, which isolated Polowin, alone, in his home.

At his funeral Aug. 18, his family and friends remembered Alex Polowin’s life and accomplishments, including former Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O’Toole, who worked closely with Polowin.

Harmonica player

He was a wonderful harmonica player. We met in 2018 through my research, writing about Canada’s Jewish servicemen and women who served in WWII.

He and I would ”attend synagogue” every Shabbat and on the High Holidays during the early part of the pandemic: I would call him and hold the phone up to our Beit Rayim Synagogue’s Zoom service and he would listen to the sermon and the Torah readings and “daven” (pray) the “musaf” part of the service together. We said Yizkor together, too: he for his late son Howard and for his late wife Kathleen, me for my dad. He would call every Friday and wish us a “good Shabbos”.

We talked about his various speaking engagements before COVID cancelled in-person Remembrance Day talks at local schools. But soon, he was able to do them by Zoom, with the help of his grandson Aaron Polowin who would drop over and handle the computer system.

Ellin Bessner with Alex Polowin, in France, June 2019. (Ellin Bessner photo).

Avoided being thrown overboard

This is a photo of us in Normandy, France in June 2019 while observing the 75th anniversary of D-Day. I recall trekking up a big hill in high heels to meet him at the hotel in Deauvulle, where the Dept. of Veterans Affairs had booked the veterans!

Alex was beloved by his group of friends in Ottawa and also around the world. He would get phone calls from Scotland and from various people interested in his service in the RCN in England, Scapa Flow, the Murmansk Run, D-Day and his biggest success: the sinking of the German battleship, Scharnhorst.

He was a regular commentator on radio stations and in newspapers and on TV for Remembrance Day interviews, D-Day, and other issues concerning Canada’s military history.

But his most effective topic was about how he navigated being Jewish on board his various ships, in the face of rampant antisemitism among the crew, that nearly cost him his life (he avoided being thrown overboard).

Alex Polowin
Alex Polowin with D-Day flag sent from the Juno Beach Centre to his Ottawa home during the pandemic. (Judy El-Hakim photo.)

He was a walking encyclopedia of Jewish Ottawa history.

He was looking forward to living on his own in his newly renovated condo and excited about his upcoming trip to Holland with his caregiver Larry Day on Sept. 8 for Operation Market Garden.

It was an honour and a privilege to have Alex as part of my life these last few years.

He was remarkable, lucid, an exercise nut even at his advanced age, thoughtful about others, and often spoke proudly about his late wife Kathleen, his children and his grandchildren.

I wrote about Alex in “Northen Lights: A Canadian Jewish History” by the Canadian Jewish News (The CJN). And in The CJN about receiving the Sovereign’s Medal for his volunteer work.

You will be missed, my dear friend. It was my honour to prepare this episode of The CJN Daily podcast about Alex.

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