Telling the stories of Jews who fought in Bomber Command
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Telling the stories of Jews who fought in Bomber Command

We talk to an archivist who quit her job to uncover tales of Jewish airmen who risked death to fight the Nazis

An iconic Second World War Spitfire
An iconic Second World War Spitfire

 A non-Jewish archivist researching Jews who fought and died in Bomber Command from 1939 to 1945 has set up a self-funded website to share their stories, using Christmas and birthday money to pay for it.

Cathie Hewitt left her job last year at the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln to focus on the project full-time, creating hundreds of family trees and travelling the world to uncover life stories.

Her research has revealed how Jewish airmen risked death to fly low over the occupied Netherlands to drop food supplies to one million starving Dutch citizens, and how a Jewish Londoner sailed a boat to Dunkirk and brought back 500 men.

She began in late 2018 when working at Bomber Command, planning a research project to support her master’s degree in genealogy. “I decided to focus on Jews who died serving in Bomber Command during the Second World War,” she told  Jewish News this week.

“As the project became larger, more time-consuming and more rewarding, I decided to stop my studies, give up my job and concentrate on it full-time. I am now self-funding. My birthday present this year from family was money to pay for the website.” That site, www.thejewsofbombercommand.com, was finally launched last week.

Hewitt admits to “welling up” in the days since, having received dozens of emails from families thanking her for her help telling their relatives’ stories.

An iconic Second World War Spitfire

These are the families she has found and contacted for the past 18 months who, in turn, provided information, documents, photos and memories of their relatives that now feature in the free-to-browse archive. Most of the information has never been seen by those outside the families themselves.

Hewitt’s initial database was created using WR Chorley’s book RAF Bomber Command Losses, looking for “typical Jewish names” and Henry Morris’
We Will Remember Them, which records Jews who died in the Armed Forces 1939-1945.

Martin Sugarman,  archivist at the Jewish Military Association (AJEX), helped, as did the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which sent Hewitt a list of those known to have a Magen David on their headstones.

 

“My database now holds the names of more than 1,000 Jewish men who came from all over the world to serve in the many air forces that supported Bomber Command, including Canada, Australia and South Africa,” she says.

“I decided I would start the archive by recording the names and details of those who served in the RAF, which numbers nearly 300 men. The next phase will be to include those who came from the other nations.”

Over several months, Hewitt created more than 300 family trees in the search for the families of these Jewish men, often making contacts through online genealogy portals. “I am now in contact with more than 60 families,” she says. “I have been privileged to see many previously unseen photos, letters, documents and memorabilia.

“So far, I have uploaded 20 stories and have another 45 to type up and place, along with documentation, on the website.”

The archive’s focus is to record short biographies detailing the fighters’ backgrounds, schooling, jobs and family life before they died.

“There are many internet sites that give information about the aircraft, burial places and missions, but not about the men themselves.

“It has been a struggle to find details on the lives of many of the airmen, mainly due to name changes and those who came from overseas to serve in the RAF,” she adds. “I hope to find more families to help fill in the gaps.”

It had been “a complete privilege” to travel across the UK and to Israel to meet the families, scan documents and gain further information about their relatives’ early lives.

The Engelhardts, from left: Leo, Wolf, Issy, Siegfried and Sophie

 

‘WE HEARD THE GRIM REAPER SWISHING HIS SCYTHE… WE THOUGHT WE’D HAD IT’

Among the many previously private photos and documents that Hewitt has found during the project was the final letter of wireless operator and Air Gunner Maurice Benjamin, for 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron, which he wrote to his mother and father.

He begins by asking forgiveness for not having written of late, saying he has been “pushed lately.

“Everything is going fine for us now,” he continues. “I bet you’re all glad the black-out is being lifted, London with all its lights on again will indeed be a fine sight, the story of the ‘Battle of the Buzz Bomb’ makes spectacular reading and I feel proud that you at home took it while my comrades and I dished it out. We certainly had some excitement between us all, didn’t we!”

 

He describes having flown two dangerous missions in three nights. “The second time we went… we heard the ‘Grim Reaper’ swishing his scythe. By God I was scared. We all thought that we’d had it, however we made our way back to base with three engines, one thousand miles of mental torture, when we landed. We felt the luckiest guys in the world.”

He then says: “Tonight we are flying again if the weather holds good, so we are keeping our fingers crossed.” He finishes by promising to “write soon”.

He was killed four days later, aged 21.

 

German speakers worked as special operators to thwart the enemy

There are eight young men on Cathie Hewitt’s website who served in 101 Squadron as a special operator, known as the eighth man. They were German speakers who would use a receiver and transmitters to identify the German language and VHF frequency and jam them. If the Germans changed frequencies, they were skilled enough to do likewise.

Among the stories on the website is that of German-born Wolf Engelhardt, whose parents, Leo and Sophie, ran a clothing shop in East Germany. He escaped on a Polish passport in early 1939, followed by his brother, Siegfried. His parents and younger brother, Issy, were deported to the Nowy Sacz ghetto, from where they wrote until 1941, when they were killed in the Holocaust.  Wolf became a farm labourer in Essex and said that when the war ended he wanted to grow flowers in Palestine. In 1943, both brothers went to sign up for the RAF.

A trainee engineer already working on aircraft, Siegfried was told to remain in his post. He later developed aircraft parts for Barnes Wallis, who invented the bouncing bomb, and died in London in 2009.

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