OPINION: It’s time to think of Second World War Jews as valiant, not victims

OPINION: It’s time to think of Second World War Jews as valiant, not victims

tamar ketko
Dr Tamar Ketko

By Dr Tamar Ketko, Curator, The Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War Two 

This week marks the launch of the Friends of the Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War Two, an initiative supporting and raising funds for the ongoing project of building the museum.

This museum, in Latrun, Israel, is an important project. Backed by the Israeli government, it has the aim of teaching and inspiring people about the invaluable contribution of Jewish soldiers in the Second World War.

Tonight, key figures from the Jewish community, and those interested in helping the museum, will attend the launch event at the Houses of Parliament.

Expected attendees include the UK Minister for the Armed Forces Mark Francois MP, the former Israeli Defence Minister Professor Moshe Arens and the co-host for the event, John Whittingdale OBE MP.

We are all aware of the losses encountered by the Jewish people in the Second World War; the Holocaust is an ever-present aspect of our collective past. However, it is the aim of this museum to review this past and recognise that we were soldiers as well as victims in the Second World War.

More than 1.5 million Jews fought in the Allied forces, ghettoes and underground groups in the Second World War. More than 200,000 medals for bravery and citations were awarded to Jewish soldiers, both living and dead.

These brave men and women were the only soldiers in the war who encountered the battle fields with a dual identity, both national and religious. In the words of the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “I doubt if there is another nation who mobilised such a high percentage of its sons and daughters for the military efforts against Nazism.”

For too long, our history in the Second World War has only focused on the tragic loss of life of our ancestors. Jewish soldiers fought in all ranks of command in the Allied armies and thousands more fought in the partisan units in Eastern Europe and the anti-fascist underground movements in Western Europe and North Africa.

The Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War II is being built so we may remember those who bravely fought, as well as those who were killed. The museum will become an international research and education hub with the focus on highlighting the contributions of Jewish soldiers in the war.

It will comprise numerous spaces and wings presented chronologically, with details of the armies and the fighting organisations starting from September 1939 and ending with the Japanese surrender in September 1945.

It will chart the story of Jewish soldiers of from more than 20 countries that fought in the Second World War, including forces from Britain, Australia, the US and France. The museum will feature case studies of Jewish soldiers of many nationalities, including the moving stories of their experiences and deaths. One of the soldiers featured is Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, a British Jew born in Leeds.

At the age of 21, Aaron was captain and pilot of a Stirling bomber of 218 Squadron RAF based at Downham Market in Norfolk. When on a raid on Turin, Italy, on 12 August 1943, the aircraft was hit by gunfire. Several crew members were wounded and the navigator, Canadian Cornelius A. Brennan, was killed.

The aircraft was heavily damaged and Aaron was badly wounded – his jaw was broken, his lung hit and his right arm rendered useless. Despite his terrible injuries, Aaron managed to level the aircraft out at 3,000ft and guided the bomb aimer, enabling him to fly the plane to Bone airfield in Algeria.

With a remaining crew of seven, Aaron saved the crew and his aircraft but died of his wounds a few hours after the aircraft had landed safely. He was awarded the Victoria Cross in recognition of his bravery.

It is stories such as this that we hope the museum will bring to the attention of our community, in order for us to remember the unparalleled position Jewish soldiers held in the Second World War. These brave men and women fought to defend their countries, their religion and their peoples.

The aimed completion date for the museum’s construction is in May next year, to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. As we look back at the horrors our people faced during the Holocaust and as we remember those who perished, it is crucial that we also commemorate those who fought back to protect our future.

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