A Vancouver college student has discovered that he has a lot in common with a Canadian RCAF airman who was killed during the Second World War. This past Remembrance Day, Sam Wise was reading a news story about the international efforts to put a Star of David symbol on the grave of navigator Morley Ornstein, who was shot down over Germany in 1945.
It was a name Wise knew.
“I was kind of taken aback,” the philosophy student said, in a recent interview.
Morley Ornstein was a first cousin of Sam’s grandmother, Linda (Ohrnstein) Wise. Their fathers were brothers: Morley’s father Ben was seven years older than his baby brother Abraham, Linda’s father. The family lived in Winnipeg during the 1920s, children of immigrant Jews from eastern Europe who settled in Canada at the turn of the century.
“So I have a picture of my grandmother here. She looks quite a bit like Morley,” Wise said, pulling down Linda’s wedding picture from a shelf behind his desk.
While Morley and his parents moved to Toronto, where he went to high school before enlisting in 1942, Sam’s grandmother Linda and her parents moved to Vancouver in the 1950s. The families lost touch.
After graduating from Harbord Collegiate in Toronto, Morley joined the RCAF in September 1942, when he turned 18. He trained as a navigator, and earned his commission as an officer before heading overseas in the spring of 1944. From April to November of that year, Morley trained on big bombers, then was posted to the RAF’s #101 Squadron in Ludford Magna, England. They flew raids over German-occupied Europe for four months, until a daytime raid against Bremen saw them shot down near the local airport.
Although witnesses said Ornstein survived the parachute jump out of the spinning plane before it crashed, locals told investigators he had been shot by German civilians when he landed.
For 75 years, Ornstein’s grave in the Becklingen War Cemetery has had a tombstone with a cross on it.
“I’m sure there was plenty of chaos at the time,” Wise said, trying to understand how the mistake could have happened. Ornstein wrote in several places on his registration papers that he was Hebrew.
Now, thanks to my work, together with a team of historians in England and Canada, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission agreed to change the tombstone to show Ornstein’s Jewish faith. The story has also been covered by Global News, and the Times of London.
“It’s taken 75 years but it’s well warranted at this point, and it’s good to hear he’s been repatriated in a meaningful way,” Wise said.
The new gravestone was carved in France, and was ready in November, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, it is not known when it will be shipped and installed at the war cemetery in Germany. But just knowing that Morley’s war story is being remembered after so many years means a great deal to Wise, who is the same age as Morley was when he was killed.
“I thought it was kind of neat because he was probably 20 at the time, so I’m also 20 and I thought that was kind of interesting, here I am 75 years later talking about it,” Wise said.
“He was 6 feet tall. I’m the same height as he was. He was a good looking lad. So I’m sure [he would have had a good life],” Wise replied, when asked what he thinks Morley’s future might have been had he survived the war.
Family of war heroes
Ornstein isn’t the only war hero in the Wise family. Sam’s grandmother Linda had an uncle, Robert A. Gelfand, who was also in the RCAF. Gelfand was also born in Winnipeg, and served with the RCAF’s 432 Squadron as a bomb aimer and navigator. His Halifax bomber was shot down June 17, 1944 over Holland.
“Apparently there were three parachutes on the plane and six crewman, and so they basically had to flip a coin. It’s probably been dramatized a little bit, but that’s what I was told,” he said.
According to Wise, while three of the seven crewmen were killed that night, his great-great-Uncle Gelfand and two crew members were rescued by the Dutch and spent the next year as evaders hidden in a church steeple in Apeldoorn, until the end of the war.
Sam’s father, Ari Wise, heard a few more details of this while he was growing up.
“The Dutch villagers gave them what they could but they all nearly starved to death there,” Ari said. “They took a considerable risk hiding them.”
Other accounts have Gelfand in a POW camp, surviving by eating grass, until escaping right before V-E Day in May 1945. Whichever version is correct, Gelfand returned safely to England on May 11.
Gelfand’s health was badly impacted by this experience. After the war he married Calgary’s Tanya Volovnik, a WWII veteran herself. Gelfand died, in 1960, at the age of 46, leaving behind a widow and three sons.
Wise and his father, Ari Wise, a Vancouver composer and musician, believe they are the only living relatives of Morley Ornstein. Sam’s grandmother Linda was an only child, and Morley’s brother Robert, who also served in the Second World War, is long dead.
“It’s a connection with the past that has been left there and we’re reigniting that flame that has been extinguished for several decades and it’s quite incredible to just have that brought back in such a meaningful way, too,” Sam said.