Remembrance Day – and One Jewish Airman’s War Diary

By ELLIN BESSNER

As Canadian Jews mark Remembrance Day today, one of the names of the fallen they might see on war cenotaphs across the country is that of Flying Officer Harry Uretzky.

Harry Uretzky

Uretzky is one of nearly 450 Jewish Canadians who didn’t come home from the Second World War. He was among the 17,000 Canadian Jewish soldiers, sailors, airmen and women who helped defeat Adolf Hitler and rescue survivors of the Holocaust.

His family and friends knew what a gifted writer the young Edmonton man was. Now, for Remembrance Day, Uretzky’s niece, Karen Hering, has released her late uncle’s war diary with a collection of his poetry. Hering and her siblings decided to publicize Harry’s story as part of their journey to learn more about the uncle they never knew. 

Harry Uretzky‘s diary; page 9-10 Feb-May 1943

“It was a very sensitive, traumatic topic with my grandmother, and therefore my father (Abe, Harry’s older brother) so Harry was rarely spoken of,” Hering said in a recent email. “It was only after my grandmother passed away that we found the small box of artifacts about my uncle and we became more interested in his story. By then, my parents had long been dead and just about anyone else who might have known him.”

Harry Uretzky with his mom and dad before being sent overseas

According to military records, Uretzky was 22 years old when he interrupted his studies in agriculture at the University of Alberta in Edmonton to enlist in late 1941. 

Harry Uretzky before graduating

A fine appearing boy. Well mannered. His voice and speech are good. Keen for pilot duties. Recommended P or O. [Pilot or Observer/bomb aimer].”

After six months training at air schools in Canada, Uretzky earned his commission as a bomb aimer. By November 1942, he was en route to England to join Bomber Command.

Newspaper clipping; Harry Uretzky arrives safely overseas

Harry’s personality speaks across the years through his private diary entries. They portray a young man far from home for the first time, exploring the nightlife and sights of wartime England, but also fully aware that at this point in the war, Germany was winning. 

The diary contains three of Uretzky’s poems, printed in neat handwriting. These poems were written shortly after Uretzky arrived in England. He was still waiting around at the #3 Personnel Reception Centre in Bournemouth. 

He wrote the first poem on a train to London. Harry was with his friend Mickey Dlin, also of Edmonton. Dlin had recently survived the crash of his Sunderland patrol plane off the coast of West Africa. He was back in England on “survivor’s leave.” 

Oh you balloons up in the sky,
Protecting us from way up high,
Floating gently in the air,
To give our enemies the scare.
A pretty sight to us below,
Giving us a damn good show,
Tendrils hanging one by one,
Alert to catch the unwary Hun.
Oh pray do not lose your gas,
Or you will fall upon your ass.
And they will bomb us from up high,
These dirty Huns, there in the sky.

Ode to a Barrage Balloon, by Harry Uretzky, Nov. 23, 1942.

The remaining poems show Uretzky was still an idealistic, untested twenty-something, although eager to prove himself in battle. He was proud of his role as a bomb aimer. 

The bomber stands, all set to go,
Ready and waiting for the big show.
The crew climbs in and takes its place,
Soon to start on “The Death’s Race”.
The engines start, the motors sing,
And now the aircraft takes to wing,
It moves away into the dark,
As on they head towards their mark.
Flying high above the clouds.
Amongst imaginary gods
The bomber roars upon its way
The wary Hun to try and slay.
The crew is sure, yet tense and grim,
And now the time is growing slim,
The target gradually draws near,
And the bomber’s eyes begin to peer.
But now the searchlights swing their beam,
Probing for us, yet unseen.
Long, ghost-like fingers in the night
To trap us all within their light.
And now the ack-ack starts to chat,
Our aircraft rocks this way and that.
The air is bright with brilliant flashes
Hoping to turn us into ashes.
“Steady” cries the man in the nose.
The one who delivers the deadly blows.
Who drops his bombs, so straight & sure.
Upon those targets in the Ruhr.
The pilot holds her steady and sure,
The bomb doors open with a whir,
All bombs are fused, the settings rights,
Steady, steady, is the word this night.
“Bombs gone” he cries, – he’s dropped them right,
And they speed away into the night,
Now for that day, their job is done,
But tomorrow, again, they carry on.

Bomber Attack by Harry Uretzky, Nov.24/42

Not long after the poems were written, Uretzky arranged to spend another leave with Dlin, and a third pal from Edmonton, Alex Podolsky, who was in England with the crack RAF #83 Pathfinder Squadron. Although most air crews in Bomber Command in 1943 did not survive that long, Podolsky was well on the way to completing his required tour of 30 missions. Uretzky couldn’t know how prophetic his next diary entry would be.

Arrived in London and met Mick & Alex – Boy what a reunion. It was sure swell to see that little bugger Podolsky again. Mick managed to get another extension, but will probably be going back to Africa next week. Don’t know when I’ll see Alex again, either. I’m hoping we all last through this mess, God willing & can start all over again.”

Dec 4/42 

Admitting he was homesick, Uretzky told his diary how much he appreciated his family: His parents Alex and Sara, and brother Abe, an engineer.

Just finished writing a letter home – my 11th home. I’m kind of homesick, you know. Funny but I didn’t think I would be… I know I’ll see them again, but not so soon. I’m kind of worried about them because they’re so sensitive. They’re parents like nobody ever had, & I pray to God, that they won’t worry too much & will keep them well. If I can finish my tour of ops [30 missions] ok I’m heading for home just as fast as I can get there. And boy what a homecoming that’ll be.

December 15/42 

A week later, Uretzky officially “crewed up” at an RAF base in Pershore, with a pilot, four other Canadian airmen and one Brit. They would train together for the next four months, flying over the British countryside, practising bombing manoeuvres. These flights were often deadly in their own right. Uretzky sounded shocked by news of his friends’ crash due to engine failure.

Most of the crew of M for Mother got it. That was George’s kite. [ed note: Bomb Aimer George Weston of Vancouver. “Kite” is air force slang for plane.]…I hope to God he’s OK but won’t know for sure until tomorrow. About three weeks ago, I had a thought. That Davie & I would get through this mess & Georgie wouldn’t. If Georgie’s had it, I hope the rest of this thought is true, for Mother’s, Dad’s & Abe’s sake.

January 29/43

Davie could have been RCAF Sgt. David Slabotsky, of Montreal, also Jewish, and in training as an air gunner at Harry’s current base. Several diary references refer to Davie, including one when the two were drunk.

Uretzky attended his friend George’s funeral at the base cemetery in early February. But there was no time to deal with his sorrow. Harry experienced some close calls himself during stepped-up training before going “operational” against targets in German-occupied Europe. 

In the night flight our starboard engine coughed, sputtered but finally came back. Later on when climbing, revs dropped down & we nearly had it, but Ken threw her in automatic, dived her & we were OK. On return, the nav. lights wouldn’t work & we circled for ½ an hr, before we could finally get in. 

Feb.3/43

Fear wasn’t something the airmen talked about, at least not publicly. Few fliers wanted to face the shame of being sent to special psychiatric hospitals for displaying what the air force deemed “Lack of Moral Fibre.” In April 1943, Uretzky’s training ended. He was sent to RAF Leeming to the RCAF #408 “Goose” Squadron. However, during one quick leave to London, Harry received terrible news.

Went to London for leave for Pesach. There, I received a cable from Mr. Podolsky that Alex went missing. God help him. I love the kid. 

April 23/43

Podolsky, who was a manager of his family’s well known Edmonton dry cleaning business, Dollar Cleaner, was killed during a raid on then-Czechoslovakia on April 17, 1943.

Harry entered the rotation with #408 Squadron a few days later. He did not sound like someone who expected to be killed, at least not yet. His first flight – mine laying – was successful. The second mission, a month later, was a night operation to bomb Dortmund, Germany.

It’s just about a month since my first op. & here comes the second tonight. It’s a good one – right in Happy Valley, Dortmund. The way the Lanc. boys flooded the place you wouldn’t think there’d be much left, but I guess there is, some left. But anyway by this morning, the place should be as flat as a pancake. See you tomorrow, fellow—fingers crossed.

May 23/43

Uretzky’s plane was shot down during the raid. His family was told only that he was missing. Later, forensic investigators learned there were four crashes that night in the same area. The German army buried all the 25 Allied casualties in 10 collective graves near the crash site in Dortmund.

Two of Uretzky’s crewmates, the pilot and the rear gunner, were positively identified. But for the others, including Harry Uretzky and air gunner David Slabotsky, the Air Force could not be certain. They put down “no known grave.” The Edmonton student was just 25 years old. Slabotsky, the Montrealer, was 22.

“I realize that this is an extremely distressing letter and that there is no manner of conveying such information to you that would not add to your heartaches,” RCAF Wing Commander W.R. Gunn wrote to Harry’s brother Abe, explaining the results of the investigation.

Hering, Abe’s daughter, revealed how Harry’s death affected the family. 

“My grandmother never got over Harry’s death,” she said. “Until she died at 96 years of age, I believe she hoped for many years that he would turn up somewhere after the war.”

Harry’s name is engraved on the Runnymede Memorial in England, which lists 20,000 Allied air personnel lost in the Second World War with no known grave. Alex Podolsky is buried in Prague, Czech Republic. The third member of the trio, Mickey Dlin, survived the war and returned home to Edmonton to marry Podolsky’s sister, Sybil. 

This Remembrance Day will be even more poignant for Hering and the extended family. Her brother, Dr. Rick Uretsky of Edmonton, who had also wanted Harry’s diary and poetry to be made public, died Monday, before this story could be published.


Ellin Bessner is a Toronto journalist and the author of “Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and WWII (2019)”, published by the University of Toronto Press. Her book is available at all major booksellers. 

To watch the 2020 Canadian National Jewish Remembrance Day ceremony online on Wednesday Nov. 11, 2020, please click here beginning at 10:50 a.m. Toronto time. The ceremony is produced by the Jewish War Veterans of Canada and B’nai Brith Canada, with the participation of the Minister of Veterans Affairs, Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole, and others, including Bessner. 

Letter to the Editor, November 2, 2020

Dear Editor:

It is nice that Erin O’Toole pledges close ties to the Jewish community (New Tory Leader Pledges Close Ties to Jewish Community, CJR, Oct. 30)

Unfortunately, his pledge does not apply to the Jewish community in Quebec. In Quebec, he says and does nothing about the fact the Quebec government practices discrimination against all minorities in the province, which includes the Jewish community.

If you would like, I can send you specifics on how the Quebec government practices discrimination against all minorities in the province.

Hy London
Montreal

New Tory Leader Pledges Close Ties to Jewish Community

By STEVE ARNOLD

Canada’s new Conservative Party leader is pitching for Jewish support with promises to move Canada’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem and to act against antisemitism.

Erin O’Toole

Erin O’Toole, elected leader of the party in August, told a recent online meeting with the Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation there is “total unanimity” in his party for continued strong support of Jewish issues.

In addition to the embassy move and action to combat antisemitism, O’Toole told 300 registered participants he would stand up to the United Nations and defund the UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for its long-standing unfairness to Israel; list the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization in Canada; denounce the BDS movement, and act against hate speech in the Armed Forces.

“There is total unanimity in the party for support for Israel,” he said. “We will stand up to the UN and its annual rite of passage to pass an anti-Israel resolution.

“These will be the centerpieces of a natural evolution for our party,” he added. “There is only one party in Canada that walks the walk on antisemitism.”

For O’Toole, one part of walking the walk is his refusal to take part in LGBTQ+ Pride parades that admit floats from BDS supporters.

O’Toole told his CAEF audience he finds the recent rise in antisemitism “deeply troubling” and believes all levels of government need to take strong action against it for the sake of Canada’s future.

“If we are not staying ahead of this by calling it out then we’re not doing a service to peace order and good government,” he said.

Statement From York Centre Conservative Candidate Julius Tiangson

Oct. 19, 2020

Why I Stand with Israel

Growing up in the Philippines, I always celebrated the powerful connection between the Jewish and Filipino diasporas, whose strong ties date to the decision of Manuel Quezon, the Second World War-era president of the Philippines, to issue 1,300 visas to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe in 1937-41.

Julius Tiangson

Not only did Quezon welcome as many Jews as he could get visas for, he also offered them his private land to grow food and develop a kind of kibbutz.

The Philippines was thereafter the only Asian nation to vote for the United Nations Partition plan of 1947, which led to the independence of the State of Israel, and paved the way for strong relations between the two countries through to the present day.

Quezon’s heroism is celebrated by both Filipino and Jewish people, including at the “Philippine-Israel Friendship Park” in Quezon City, the Philippines, and at “Balai Quezon” multipurpose centre in Tel Aviv.

In 2015, the board of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation approved a posthumous bestowal of the Wallenberg Medal upon President Quezon and to the people of the Philippines for having reached out, between 1937 and 1941, to the persecuted Jews of Europe.

I believe that Canada, too, should celebrate this great relationship with gratitude, with a monument in York Centre.

I am deeply committed to rebuilding Canada’s relationships with its most reliable allies, especially the State of Israel. Like our party’s leader, Erin O’Toole, I support recognizing Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel and moving the Embassy of Canada to Jerusalem. Israel, like every sovereign nation, has the right to choose its own capital as a domestic decision; and the people of Israel have chosen to restore their ancient capital in Jerusalem.

Mr. O’Toole and I will stand by our ally Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East. Our party’s position on Israel is inspired by our last Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who famously promised the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, that “through fire and water, Canada will stand with you.”

I agree with his argument that it is in Canada’s long-term interest to back a country where freedom, democracy and the rule of law are threatened by “those who scorn modernity, who loathe the liberty of others and who hold the differences of peoples and cultures in contempt.”

Under Prime Minister Harper, Canada was a loyal ally to Israel at the United Nations. Unlike the current government, which has infamously abandoned Israel on UN resolution votes, the Harper government consistently stood against the abuse of Israel by a body which values dictatorships as much as democracies, and elevates countries like Communist China and Cuba to its Human Rights Council.

I celebrate the Middle East’s only democracy, a multiethnic country, much like our own, made up of recent immigrants from around the globe; and the only country in the region to provide full rights and democratic participation to religious and ethnic minorities.

The vibrant free press and right to dissent available to all Israelis, including religious minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ communities, are the envy of the region. Israel is also an environmental trailblazer as the only country in the world to have more trees at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning.

I also recognize the tremendous progress that Israel has made towards a regional agreement with the Abraham Accords, through which it has made peace with two of its Arab neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain. As Prime Minister Harper rightly noted in a recent article, these agreements “are truly transformative and will pave the way for historic realignments across the Middle East.” They occurred because the world has changed – not only has the strong support of its allies proved to regional nations that Israel is a lasting part of the Middle East, but increasingly, a partner with leading Arab nations against the aggression of Iran.

I also stand with the Jewish community in embracing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which recognizes that antisemitism “might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” which is different from criticism leveled against any other country.

According to Statistics Canada, year over year, there are more hateful attacks against Jews than upon any other group. I will always fight the terrible scourge of the world’s oldest hatred.

I call upon all Canadians who support Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East and Canada’s most reliable ally in the region, to join this campaign, because I want to represent you.

For a statement on Israel from York Centre’s Liberal candidate, Ya’ara Saks, click here.

Editorial: Findlay Apology Not Good Enough

Sept. 2, 2020 – Who is Kerry Lynne Findlay and what did she do to anger so many Canadian Jews (and others)?

Findlay is the Conservative member of Parliament representing South Surrey—White Rock in the Greater Vancouver area. She’s a one-time parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice and served for two years in the Stephen Harper government as Minister of National Revenue.

Today, she is the Conservative environment critic who should have known better.

Last week, Findlay re-tweeted a short video of a 2009 interview then journalist Chrystia Freeland, now the finance minister, conducted with philanthropist and investor George Soros for the Financial Times. That in itself would not have raised many eyebrows, except that Findlay did a deep dive into the wild world of antisemitic conspiracy theories that place Soros at their centre.

About Freedland and Soros, Findlay had this warning: “The closeness of these two should alarm every Canadian.” Fellow Conservative MP and finance critic Pierre Poilievre duly re-tweeted Findlay’s post.

Soros is seen by the underbelly of conspiracists – QAnon currently leading that pack – as nothing short of attempting to control the world, and as the embodiment of evil for donating to progressive causes.

According to the largest organization focused on fighting antisemitism, the Anti-Defamation League, Soros “has become a lightning rod for conservative and right-wing groups who object to his funding of liberal causes.” In far right circles worldwide, the ADL continues, Soros’ philanthropy is “often recast as fodder for outsized conspiracy theories, including claims that he masterminds specific global plots or manipulates particular events to further his goals.”

Many of those conspiracy theories employ longstanding antisemitic tropes, particularly that rich and powerful Jews lurk behind the scenes, plotting to control countries and manipulate global events, the ADL explains.

Soros is Jewish and a child survivor of the Holocaust. It was his survival that drove him to succeed, and he has become one of the wealthiest people in the world. He has also devoted his life and, it’s been estimated, more than $30 billion to following the Jewish dictum to make the world a better place.

Today, at age 90, Soros has become a hero to racial and ethnic minorities and those demanding necessary changes to the human condition.

The good news is that there was strong pushback from all sectors of Canadian society against Findlay’s tweet. Jewish organizations, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, and many on Twitter criticized Findlay loudly and passionately. To her credit, she did offer an apology – of sorts.

Again using Twitter, Findlay wrote:

“Earlier today, I thoughtlessly shared content from what I am now learning is a source that promotes hateful conspiracy theories. I have removed the tweets and apologize to anyone who thinks I would want to endorse hateful rhetoric.”

Kerry-Anne Findlay

This is a good start, but not nearly enough. Anytime Jews are connected to mindless conspiracy theories emanating from the far right, they are placed at risk. Findlay needs to go further and explain the context, reference the Jewish community, and let Canadians know the danger faced by Jews daily. A good word about the work of Soros helping countless individuals and causes would go a long way.

We must also add that Poilievre, as of this writing, has remained silent, as has newly-minted Conservative leader Erin O’Toole. Both could use this opportunity to speak out forcefully against Jew-hatred, but to date, have not.

Hate crime statistics consistently show that Canadian Jews remain the number one victim of haters and bigots. Surely Findlay’s response should reflect this reality, and both Poilievre and O’Toole would be wise to join the chorus against hate.

There’s always the tired old charge that Jews over-react to every little thing, and maybe this is one of them. Trust us: It’s better than the opposite.

Addendum:

According to a report in the Globe and Mail on Sept. 3, O’Toole said he learned of the issue after Findlay’s tweet had been deleted, adding that he spoke with some Jewish leaders to say that the Conservatives are a strong voice against antisemitism.

Erin O’Toole On Record as Pledging Embassy Move

Aug. 24, 2020 – New Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has in the past indicated he is a strong supporter of Israel and would move Canada’s embassy there to Jerusalem.

Following a six-hour delay to fix glitches with the ballots, O’Toole handily won the Conservative Party leadership early Monday, taking 57 percent of the votes on the third and final ballot, compared to 43 percent for second-place contender Peter MacKay.

In a video posted to Facebook last month, O’Toole repeated his pledge to move Canada’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and the modern presence there just cements this. The Knesset, the Supreme Court and Foreign Ministry are all in west Jerusalem,” O’Toole said.

Canada-Israel relations have “weakened and wavered” under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he added.

“I stand with Israel,” he said. “Yesterday, today and always.”

This past February, MacKay backtracked on his position on moving Canada’s embassy in Israel. On day after he was quoting as saying he would not commit to such a move as leader, MacKay said it had “always been my personal view that Jerusalem is the undisputed capital of the State of Israel and that is where Canada’s embassy should be and under my leadership, will be located.”

O’Toole, a former party foreign affairs critic, wasted little time in staking out his position.

“Under Stephen Harper, Canada stood out as a resolute friend of Israel. Sadly, under Justin Trudeau, this strong support has weakened. We need a principled Conservative leader who will make Canada a true friend of Israel once again,” O’Toole said at the time.

“I have been absolutely clear about this and my views have not changed. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The strong presence of the Jewish people there is thousands of years old.

“I believe that we need more of a presence in the ground in Jerusalem. It’s crazy that our ambassador has to drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to meet with government officials just to preserve a diplomatic fiction. It’s time to recognize reality and move our embassy,” O’Toole said.

Earlier this year, all Canadian political parties came out in opposition to Israel’s contentious plan to annex parts of the West Bank, particularly the Jordan Valley. Israel has since postponed those plans.

The CJR reached out to Conservative leadership frontrunners MacKay and O’Toole. Only O’Toole replied, saying, “We don’t support any unilateral action whether it involves the Palestinians using the [International Criminal Court] against Israel, or the Israelis annexing disputed territory. Canada supports and remains committed to a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict.”

When he ran for the leadership in early 2017, a contest won by Andrew Scheer, O’Toole was an unstinting supporter of Israel, even in a field of 14 strongly pro-Israel candidates.

At the time, O’Toole said he supports “Israel as a democratic, Jewish state with secure borders… Israel has been ready to sign a final peace deal several times. Each time, the Palestinian leadership has walked away from the table. Palestinian leaders still refuse to accept the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. It is this, and not the settlements, that is the obstacle to peace.”

O’Toole said he’d advance peace by establishing an exchange program between the Canadian Armed Forces and the Israel Defense Forces, “and vocally opposing efforts to isolate Israel, such as the recent United Nations resolution that the Trudeau government remained silent on.”