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

While I can’t issue medals for gallant service, I would like to recognize the holy work with Jewish war graves that British historian Martin Sugarman has been doing for years in the field of remembrance. Aside from his dozens of published books and articles on Jewish military topics, including his most recent one on Jews in the Merchant Navy in the Second World War, Sugarman keeps a rolling list of Jewish (or potentially-Jewish) Allied personnel who were killed in WWII or WWI. He gets to work when he finds those whose graves do not bear the symbol of the Star of David. Some actually bear a cross.

Sugarman is the archivist for Britain’s Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. He works with next of kin, and liaises directly with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to have the official records updated, so the war casualty is officially recognized as Jewish.

This also could include the CWGC either fixing the existing tombstone by placing a Star of David on there in the first place, or, replacing and updating the tombstone to remove the cross that was put there long ago.

Painstaking research to prove Jewish identities

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

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 was able to have the grave updated.

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

I am currently working with Martin on the case of RCAF pilot Morley Ornstein, a graduate of Harbord Collegiate in Toronto. Ornstein was educated in Toronto at Harbord Collegiate. He enlisted just after he turned 18. He served as a navigator in No. 101 Squadron, out of RAF Ludford Magna, England. I’ve discovered that Ornstein’s parents were Jewish immigrants to Western Canada, where they were married in Winnipeg in 1921. The family lived for a time on Euclid Avenue in Toronto, and later Windsor, Ontario. Morley’s father Ben was a carpet salesman, and spoke Yiddish, according to a family friend Morley Wolfe, Q.C.

On March 23, 1945, Ornstein’s Lancaster bomber crew was sent on a daytime raid to Bremen. On the way back, they were hit by flak. Ornstein may indeed have survived by jumping out with his parachute. After the war, military investigators found his body near Bremen, along with of some of the crew. Others survived but were captured as POWs.

Ornstein’s parents always thought the Germans had captured Morley and murdered him. His grave in Becklingen Cemetery has a cross on it.

We are trying to get the CWGC to declare Ornstein as officially Jewish, and to put the proper religious symbol on his grave. It is a painstaking process and requires lots of research and primary documents. If anyone knows where Ornstein’s parents are buried, or the fate of his brother Robert, a veteran of the Royal Canadian Army, it would help enormously.

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

jewish war veteran medal
Medal issued by the Jewish War Veterans of Canada for V-E Day May 8, 1945 awarded to Ellin Bessner by Martin Maxwell at a commemorative dinner May 2019.

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