November is Holocaust Education Month, a time we tell stories of survival. My father, the sole Jewish survivor of his small Polish village, used to say that it took 1,000 miracles to survive the Shoah because 999 were simply not enough.
The following is not only the story of 1,000 miracles, but at its conclusion we will understand what the circle of life is really all about.
In 1939, when Samuel Pisar was 10 years old, both the Nazi and Soviet armies invaded his native Poland. Interestingly, Samuel came from Bialystok, 50 kilometers from my father’s village of Bothki. When Adolf Hitler broke the Nazi/Soviet pact in 1941, Samuel was captured along with thousands of other Jews. He was young and strong and survived incarcerations at Majdanek, Auschwitz and other camps whose only purpose was to murder Jews.
His final camp, Dachau, became the concluding volume in this first chapter of his life. It was the spring of 1945. Young Samuel was out on a Nazi slave labour detail as Allied forces approached. Nazi SS guards gathered the work detail and marched them away from the advancing Americans. They marched for three days with little water or food. Many succumbed. Still young, Samuel stayed alive.
It was on the third day when a number of Allied fighter planes spotted both the Nazis and their slave labour detail. Thinking it was a column of Nazi soldiers, the planes’ pilots descended sharply and strafed the area. Taking advantage of the ensuing confusion, a number of prisoners made a break for the forest. The bombing and Nazi bullets mowed most of them down but young Samuel used up one of his thousand miracles and made it to the safety of the embracing forest.
Starving, emaciated, Samuel hid in an abandoned hayloft. A few mornings later, he was awakened by the sound of a rumbling motor. Cautiously looking out from his hiding place, sure that he would see the dreaded swastika, he saw instead an American insignia.
Washed over with relief, he stumbled from the hayloft in tears of joy. The hatch of the tank popped open and emerging was Corporal Bill Ellington, the son of a former slave and member of the storied 761st Tank Battalion, known for being comprised primarily of African-Americans. They were the original “Black Panthers.”
The son of a former slave and the young survivor of the Nazi death camps held each other while Samuel cried the only words he knew in English, “God Bless America.”
He was just 16, the sole Jewish survivor of his family in Poland when he emerged into what would become the second volume of his life.
Miracles followed Samuel. He was raised by the remnants of his French and Australian family, graduated from the University of Melbourne, and later earned doctorates of law from Harvard and the Sorbonne.
His rise was rapid. He worked for the United Nations and UNESCO and was appointed a special advisor to President John F. Kennedy. He counseled the State Department and worked as legal adviser to both the House of Representatives and Senate. He was one of the youngest, most respected government advisers – so much so that in 1961, through a special act of Congress, Pisar was awarded U.S. citizenship.
His legacy continued. He counselled governments and world- renowned personalities from pianist Arthur Rubenstein to tech whiz Steve Jobs. His passion became human rights and he took up the causes of the novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.
He became a trustee of the Brookings Institute, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and has addressed international conferences and world leaders at Davos, the International Monetary Fund and the European Parliament.
Samuel was twice married upon his death in July 2015 and left two daughters, one from his first marriage, Leah and Norma, from his second wife, Judith.
Here’s the promised kicker: Samuel also left a step-son from his marriage to Judith: Antony Blinken who, on Nov. 23, was nominated to become U.S. Secretary of State in the administration of President-in-Waiting Joe Biden.
Samuel Pisar was a man of many miracles, maybe even 1,000. May his memory continue to be a blessing.
Bernie Farber is publisher and co-founder of the Canadian Jewish Record, Chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a writer and human rights advocate.
An Ajax councillor has apologized for citing Israeli “oppression” of Palestinians as justification for naming a local street after a Nazi warship commander.
“I would like to apologize for any comments I made that were hurtful to yourself and the Jewish Community,” Coun. Ashmeed Khan (Ward 2) said in an email exchange with Ajax resident Adam Wiseman. “That was not my intention.”
Khan made the controversial statement Monday in a lengthy debate over a motion to change the name Langsdorff Drive to that of an Allied veteran of the Second World War. The motion to change the name passed four to three.
During that discussion, Khan declared: “One word I have heard repeated consistently today is reconciliation, reconciliation, reconciliation. I’ve been having calls from people in [his ward] who are Palestinian and have no hope of reconciliation, as they are currently being oppressed by the Jewish State of Israel and they are concerned about how we will address this today.”
The next day, Wiseman, who started a petition calling for the street’s name change, asked that Khan apologize.
“I understood your comment about the ‘Jewish state of Israel currently oppressing Palestinians’ as justification for not changing the street name as though you are implying that yourself and the Palestinian community believe Jews deserve this sort of affront,” Wiseman wrote. “(I)f that was your intention then I am requesting an on the record apology to the Jewish community in Ajax.”
At the heart of the debate is a residential street named in 2004, and dedicated in 2007, for Captain Hans Langsdorff, a career officer of Nazi Germany’s navy and commander of the warship Admiral Graf Spee.
An attempt to name one street in Ajax for Langsdorff’s ship was reversed earlier this year.
In addition to challenging Khan’s statement, Wiseman also had a testy email exchange with Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier, who opposed the renaming motion.
Wiseman wanted the mayor to condemn antisemitism but Collier replied that Langsdorff was an honourable man who deserved to be remembered.
Collier noted a passage from a book titled Command Decisions: Langsdorff and the Battle of the River Plate: “All Langsdorff’s actions as captain of the Graf Spee show that he was a decent, honourable and compassionate man.”
Wiseman responded that in his message to Collier, he had used Langsdorff’s own words from his suicide note, in which he praised Adolf Hitler as a “prophet,” not the “conjecture” of an author writing decades after the events.
Holding Langsdorff up as anything other than a loyal officer of the German navy cheapened the memory of Germans who actively opposed the Nazi regime, Wiseman added.
Wiseman said he was “absolutely disappointed about this email both in tone and content.”
In a later email to the CJR, he added the mayor should have called out an antisemitic statement the moment it happened.
“I am definitely not pleased with the mayor,” he wrote. “It is after all his council and I feel the comment should have been addressed in the moment. The best way to fight antisemitism is to call it out immediately and without apology.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Erik Larson is a New York Times bestselling author known for his splendid narrative non-fiction books. He writes about historical events from a human point of view, often referencing “mass population diaries” to get a sense of what the common person was feeling and thinking at the time.
It’s not surprising that vox populi often supply the most accurate and colourful telling of history.
One of Larson’s better-known books, In the Garden of Beasts, is a bone-chilling account of the United States’ first ambassador to Nazi Germany and how he and his family endured the brutal rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.
Of particular interest now is Larson’s latest epic, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. It vividly describes, through the diaries regular Britons were urged to keep, combined with the papers of Winston Churchill and his family and other historical documents, the daily experiences of Londoners during the Blitz and how Churchill, in full pugnacity, led his people during the most dangerous and horrific times they had ever experienced.
As Larson himself noted, the book takes readers “out of today’s political dysfunction and back to a time of true leadership, when in the face of unrelenting horror, Churchill’s eloquence, strategic brilliance, and perseverance bound a country and a family together.”
Larson’s book is worth reading for other reasons, both for its parallels to today and most specifically, for the manner in which it speaks to the vital urgency of true political leadership in a time of deep crisis.
We need not go over the insanity south of the border. We do, however, need to take stock of the lessons of leadership and its importance in these dangerous times.
In past generations leaders have risen to take on the monstrous responsibilities of war, fear, insurrection, poverty and need. Whether it was John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile crisis, David Ben-Gurion fighting to lead his tiny population of Jews towards a resurrected state, Franklin Roosevelt’s bold New Deal to lead the way out of the Great Depression, or General Charles de Gaulle inspiring the people of France during the Nazi occupation, it was leadership that made it all happen.
As we consider today’s leadership, it would be wise to recall the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth:
“Leaders lead because there is work to do, there are people in need, there is injustice to be fought, there is wrong to be righted, there are problems to be solved and challenges ahead. Leaders hear this as a call to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. They lead because they know that to stand idly by and expect others to do the work is the too-easy option. The responsible life is the best life there is, and is worth all the pain and frustration. To lead is to serve; The highest accolade Moses ever received was to be called ‘eved Hashem’ – ‘God’s servant’ – and there is no higher honour.”