One Man’s Quest to get a Star of David on graves of 100 Jews KIA

Case of Toronto Jewish airman from Harbord Collegiate solved

It’s taken 10 months of detective work by Canadian and international genealogy sleuths to reveal a happy conclusion in the case of a downed Canadian WWII RCAF airman, Morley Ornstein. What better timing for this to happen than on the same month, 78 years ago, when Ornstein enlisted in the air force, in 1942. Ornstein, a graduate of Harbord Collegiate in Toronto, joined up as soon as he marked his 18th birthday.

Morley Ornstein
Morley Ornstein, RCAF Navigator, killed over Germany March 23, 1945. (Operation Picture Me)

Ornstein’s parents were Jewish immigrants to Western Canada, where they were married in Winnipeg in November 1921. The family lived there for a time before moving to Toronto, taking up residence on Grace Street and later on Euclid Avenue.

There was an older brother, Robert, who enlisted in the army. Morley’s father Ben was a carpet salesman, and spoke Yiddish, while his mother’s name, Esther Freda (nee Kapon), was on Ornstein’s military documents as his immediate next of kin. Ornstein enlisted as a Hebrew.

Morley Ornstein's Pay book
Morely Ornstein’s paybook (Ancestry.ca)

Once in England, Ornstein eventually joined a Lancaster bomber crew, where he served as a navigator in the RAF’s No. 101 Squadron, out of RAF Ludford Magna, England. On March 23, 1945, Ornstein’s group was sent on a daytime raid to bomb Bremen. His plane LL755 SR-U (for Uncle) was the leading aircraft, and carried a crew of seven.

On the way back from the raid, the Lancaster was hit by flak. The left wing fell off. The plane started to “twist like a fiend”, according to a later account by the pilot, Reg Paterson, for Air Crew Remembered.

The pilot saw Ornstein with a parachute clipped on, and helped his young navigator get into position to bail out out of the plummeting plane.

Downed Lancaster LL755 SR U
Investigators discovered the wreckage of Ornstein’s plane in September 1945. (Ancestry.ca)

The pilot and two others made it safely down to the ground, landing near the Bremen airport, but were captured and interrogated. Patterson was shown Ornstein’s identity card and was informed that his young crewman was dead. But the pilot never saw the body before being sent to a German POW camp near Barth for the rest of the war.

Air Crew
Morley Ornstein is on the top row, extreme left. (Courtesy Chinese Canadian Military Museum, Vancouver.)

Mystery body

Ornstein’s parents always thought the Germans had captured their son after he came down onto a tree, and dangled helplessly until he was shot. This is due to testimony given by some German children to Allied forensic investigators after the war. According to Aircrew Remembered, there was also a mystery as to who was really buried in the temporary grave designated as Ornstein’s.

When the military exhumed four bodies of the crew from their temporary graves at Osterholz, close to Bremen, the one purported to be Ornstein was a thin man who was 5′ 5” , and had brown hair. Ornstein’s attestation papers described him as six inches taller, at 5′ 11”, with black hair.

Lt.-Col. (Ret’d) David Bashow’s book No Prouder Place (2005) quotes the pilot, Patterson, describing Ornstein as a big man with a big appetite, even if the sandwiches the Jewish airman was eating didn’t always follow Jewish dietary laws, which ban pork products.

Excerpt from No Prouder Place, by Lt.-Col. David Bashaw, from Google Books.

After the war, officials reburied the crew three hours to the east at Becklingen War Cemetery. According to Martin Sugarman, a London, England-based Jewish military archivist, apparently efforts had been made to contact the family after the war for instructions about the tombstone. Receiving no reply, the War Graves Commission put a cross on it, by default.

After my research visit (for another story)to Harbord Collegiate’s impressive War Memorial Sculpture in January 2020, organizer Murray Rubin, 89, (Class of 1950) and his fellow Harbord alumnus Morley S. Wolfe, Q.C., then 91, asked me if I had heard of one of the Harbord boys who didn’t come back: Morley Ornstein. A quick Google search turned up the photo of his tombstone with a cross, and sparked my hunt to find out why.

Morley Ornstein grave
Tombstone of Morley Ornstein, 20, in the Becklingen War Cemetery, Germany. (Courtesy Virtual War Memorial, photo by Marg Liessens, 2009, used with permission.)

Painstaking research to prove Jewish identities

While I can’t issue medals, British historian Martin Sugarman deserves one for his holy work with the graves of about 100 Jews who were killed in action during war. He keeps a rolling list of Jewish (or potentially-Jewish) Allied personnel who were killed in WWII or WWI. Any graves which do not bear the symbol of the Star of David — some actually bear a cross — spark a new project to find out why, and try to correct the mistake.

Sugarman is the archivist for Britain’s Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. He works with next of kin, if possible, and liaises directly with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in England. The CWGC is in charge of all 1.7 million Allied war graves around the world.

Sugarman’s goal is to have the official records and gravestones updated, once the war casualty is officially recognized as Jewish.

I contacted Sugarman, who took on the project. He applied to the CWGC to ask that they declare Ornstein as officially Jewish, and put the proper religious symbol on his grave. Proving Ornstein’s Jewishness was a painstaking process. It required confirmation of Ornstein’s parents’ religions, their marriage records, census entries, even U.S. border crossing cards showing their mother took Morley, then a toddler, and his brother to visit a relative in Buffalo, New York.

None of that was enough to convince cemetery officials that Ornstein was indeed Jewish. We still haven’t located his parent’s graves, which would have shown they were both Jewish, and would have helped.

Perhaps what did the trick was a heartfelt letter from Ornstein’s old family friend Morley S. Wolfe, who turned 92 on October 13, and who shares the same first name, although no relation.

Man with Jewish photo
Morley S. Wolfe, in his Brampton, Ontario home, October 2020. (Submitted photo)

The letter is reproduced below from the well-known Canadian lawyer, retired justice, and long time Jewish community volunteer and human rights worker.

Dear Sirs.

It has come to my attention an effort is being made to obtain confirmation that a member of the RCAF

(killed in action) MORLEY ORNSTEIN, was in fact Jewish.

I am presently 91 years of age, and have clear memories of Morley, and his family – close friends of my parents, Betty and Cecil Wolfe (Royal Canadian Engineers) – and feel it incumbent 

upon me to support efforts to have Morley’s memorial indicate his Jewish background.

Ben Ornstein, Morley’s father, was a carpet and rug salesman, had an automobile in the 1940’s, and he and his wife often took us for rides – which included Morley, his brother Robert, my parents, and myself.

I am well-acquainted with Yiddish, having graduated I.L. Peretz Jewish School in that language. Both my parents spoke Yiddish, and I certainly have a clear recollection of Morley’s parents conversing with mine, on occasion, in Yiddish, obviously indicative of Morley’s background.

I recall Morley volunteering for service in the RCAF, while his brother Robert joined the Canadian army.

If I can be of any further assistance in this regard, do not hesitate to contact me.

Best regards,

Morley S. Wolfe Q.C.

New Headstone

In September 2020, Sugarman received this long-awaited email from a commemorative officer of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Maidenhead, England.

“Please be advised that the case for Flying Officer Morley Ornstein has now been accepted and the commission will now arrange for a new headstone to be engraved with the Star of David,” David Avery wrote.

“Please celebrate,” came the excited email to us from Sugarman with the news. “One more success!”

As for Wolfe, whose letter and advanced age convinced the CWGC to put Ornstein’s case on the fast track, this project was “a work of the heart”.

“Remembering Morley Ornstein, seeing his name on our High School memorial, and being able to assist in a noble endeavour, has been a work of love,” says Wolfe, from his home in Brampton, Ontario. Wolfe, like Ornstein, was also born in Winnipeg but was fours younger than his friend.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has promised to send a photo of the new tombstone to us researchers when the project is completed, but due to the coronavirus it will not be quickly.

If anyone knows where Ornstein’s parents are buried, or the whereabouts of the descendants of his brother Robert, it would be helpful. We would love to share this important news with them.

tourists at HMS Victory
Martin Sugarman (left) with Ellin Bessner and historian Ted Barris (right) in London, June 2019.

It isn’t difficult to understand why there are so many cases like Morley Ornstein’s. Sometimes the Allies placed a cross on the tombstone during or after the war, because paperwork was missing. Even if there was paperwork, the Jewish personnel had sometimes lied about their religion when they enlisted. Some of them did this in order to avoid being captured by the Nazis and killed for being Jews.

For similar reasons, other Jewish personnel changed their names when they enlisted. Canadian Lance Corporal Norman Middleton served with the Canadian Forestry Corps. (You can read about the so-called Sawdust Fusiliers here, on Bob Briggssite). But Norman Middleton was actually born Leon Mendelson. He was from Fort William, Ontario (now Thunder Bay). He is buried in the Urray New Parish Churchyard cemetery in Scotland. His death certificate states that he died in August 1942 of a fractured skull due to an accident. Interestingly, his tombstone is designed in the shape of a tree that was cut too soon. This is a very common Jewish custom when someone dies at a young age. He was 33. Martin Sugarman was able to have the grave updated to reflect Mendelson’s true faith.

Tombstone of Norman Middleton, aka Leon Mendelson, WWII casualty, buried in a Christian graveyard in Scotland.

You can reach Martin Sugarman through me, should you have information on this or other unsolved cases.

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