The coronavirus has forced the cancellation or limitation of most of the world’s highly-anticipated ceremonies to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. For my part, all of my scheduled lectures and public events here in Canada this spring have been postponed or called off entirely, due to the pandemic. However, the milestones of the liberation of Holland and #V-EDay75 are far too important to ignore. That is why I want to pay tribute, virtually, to the vital contribution of Canada’s 17,000 Jewish fighting military personnel to winning the war against Hitler, and rescuing the survivors of the Holocaust.
Related stories: How a Canadian Jewish RCAF rigger encountered Bergen-Belsen
In early May 1945, the Allies held a series of formal German capitulation ceremonies across occupied Europe.
There was one ceremony in Italy. Another, on May 4 near Hamburg, is better known because the Allies’ public relations unit was on hand to film the occasion when British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery accepted the German surrender of Holland, and Denmark and parts of northern Germany. Watch the video here:
Another relatively high-profile ceremony happened on May 5, in Wageningen, Holland where Canadian General Guy Foulkes accepted the surrender of the German Army in the western part of the country.
Surrender ceremony at Bad Zwischenahn, Germany May 5, 1945
On that same day, Canadian General Guy Simmons of the 2nd Canadian Corps took the surrender of some 30,000 German forces east of the Dutch border, in a ceremony held at the lakeside resort town of Bad Zwischenahn, Germany, near Oldenberg.
We don’t have photos of the surrender of General Erich von Straube, as photographers were not permitted. But we know some of the inside details because of the letters that then-Major Gerald Levenston wrote home to his mother in Toronto.
His letters were always addressed to “My Darling Mom”.
Bad Zwischenahn possessed both a Luftwaffe airfield and a naval air base in the nearby lake. The Germans used to test out Messerschmidt fighter planes, the ones so deadly to Allied forces. Canada would set up its Occupation Headquarters there in the spring of 1945.
And it was there that Levenston was selected for a job for which he had never trained, but one that he would call the highlight of his war career.
Until this point, Levenston, a graduate of Vaughan Road Collegiate in Toronto and a jeweller, had seen action in tank battles in North Africa against Rommel, and had served as a senior quartermaster in charge of supplies for all the Canadian troops fighting in northwest Europe from D-Day. He’d gained a degree of notoriety for conceiving and opening a giant, free hamburger restaurant for the Canadian troops near Nijmegen. He named it The Blue Diamond.
Watch the video here:
Of the pivotal role played by Levenston, then 30, and of Jewish faith, during the May handover ceremony between the victorious Canadian troops and the staff of defeated German General von Straube, we find out only from Levenston’s letters home.
My Darling Mom,
“The administrative orders had to be given and Brigadier Darrell Laing called me in and said that I had to go up to the tent where the German staff officers were, to dictate the terms of the agreement. I said ‘I am a major. Why do you want me to go?’ And he said ‘I want a Jew to go tell those bastards what to do’.”
Later he would have “almost daily conferences with the defeated German army“, he writes.
He told his mother that “it seems strange that Rothschild–and me should be handling the capitulated German army in the Canadian area…poetic justice.”
The other Jewish officer was Robert P. Rothschild, not related to the banking family with the same last name. Rothschild was born in Cochrane, Ontario but had grown up in Montreal, and graduated from McGill University and also the Royal Military College. He would later become a general. The duo was sent out to, in Levenston’s words, “tell the Nazis what they could and couldn’t do”.
After the war, Levenston was decorated at Buckingham Palace for his gallantry, earning an MBE. He also won a medal from the Dutch government for his 1945 post-war work. Levenston and his men restored nearly 300 hidden Vincent Van Gogh paintings to their rightful place at the Kroller-Muller museum in Otterlo.
Rothschild, too, was awarded the British MBE, and the Dutch Order of Orange Nassau, with Swords. Both men’s mothers had the same name: Anne.
Levenston and Rothschild would survive the war, and return to Canada to build successful post-war lives and careers. However, at least 7,600 Canadian troops died in the fighting to re-capture Holland. Many are buried in the large Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries from Bergen-Op-Zoom, to Holten, to Groesbeek, and across the border into northern Germany, in the Reichswald Forest location.
Thirty-nine (39) Jewish Canadian troops lie buried in cemeteries in Holland, while 47 others are buried in Germany. We remember them all on this 75th Liberation Day for Holland, May 5, 2020 and on this 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, V-E Day May 8.