Using lockdown to research and archive the Jewish heroes of the RAF

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Using lockdown to research and archive the Jewish heroes of the RAF

Archivist Cathie Hewitt has spent lockdown researching Jewish members of the RAF,  having previously honoured those who fought in Bomber Command

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Jews in the RAF included the Pogrel crew
Jews in the RAF included the Pogrel crew

A non-Jewish archivist who spent months creating a website to honour Jews who fought and died in Bomber Command during the Second World War is to create a new and more expansive website honouring the “Jews of the RAF”.

Cathie Hewitt, whose dogged pursuit of family trees is leading to pilots buried under Christian names being given a Star of David on their graves, told Jewish News this week of her plans to “include all Jewish personnel who served in the war”.

“I’m creating a database of those who died serving in the RAF in the war and, to date, I have 400 on the list. I will be creating a new website called ‘The Jews of the RAF’ and I’m looking for relatives of those personnel to contact me with further information, so their relatives’ lives can be commemorated.”

The many commands and areas her work will cover include Fighter, Coastal, Far East, Balloon, Support, Training, Transport, Middle East and Mediterranean, honouring men and women from pilots to ground crew to members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs).

An iconic Second World War Spitfire

“I was researching the Jews of Bomber Command and began getting messages from families asking me to include their relative. When I looked into it I found they’d served in Coastal Command or Fighter Command or something. It was difficult to tell them I wouldn’t be commemorating them because they weren’t in the right Command. I thought, why don’t
I include all of them in the RAF?”

While many are buried or commemorated in the UK, she said her research had led to Jewish personnel buried or commemorated in places as far afield as Jakarta [Indonesia], India, Italy, Nigeria, Canada, Malta, Greece, Gaza, and Basra in Iraq, with some having been prisoners of war when they died.

“The Commonwealth War Graves Commission sent me a list of all those buried with a Star of David,” she said. “That was a good start.” But for those commemorated among the 20,000 names on the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial in Surrey, she said “you’ve got no clue” as regards their religion.

Hewitt said her interest extended beyond those killed by enemy action to include “those who were serving but died as a result of accidents or illnesses… I found a couple who were serving but were killed by V2 rockets on London while on leave”.

She added: “One chap I found died in a collision with a lorry, another fell off a cliff in Torquay, where there was a big training unit, while another two were killed when the Café de Paris nightclub in London was bombed in 1941.”

Hewitt credited a Jewish News article in February for alerting families to her efforts collating information on the 303 Jews who fought and died in Bomber Commands, and said she was asking “relatives of these RAF personnel for their stories”. She explained: “After the article, I had people calling to say things like their uncle had died in the Battle of Britain. I put them to one side, but now seems to be the right time to create a space to commemorate them.”

Jews in the RAF included the Pogrel crew, including Lionel Walters

Hewitt hopes an Israeli genealogy company would sponsor her efforts, and said she would like “to have a space on each page so families can honour or leave a remembrance message”.

Among the 400 Jewish RAF personnel she has already researched are two who were held as Japanese prisoners of war. “They died when their boat sank and they’re buried in Thailand.  I found them through genealogical research.”

She added: “I’m finding a lot whose next of kin is in Israel, so these are guys who came across from Israel to serve. Some came from South Africa. There are amazing stories, but I’m at the beginning of
my research.”

Hewitt is working closely with Paula Kitching from the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX), who runs the We Were There Too online platform, documenting the contribution of British Jews.

The fascinating tales of Jews in the RAF… 

Among the fascinating stories Cathie Hewitt wants to showcase is that of Israel Lieberman, who before enlisting in 1940, ran a drapery store. He joined 32 Squadron as ground crew and in December 1942, it deployed with its Hurricanes to Algeria. On 15 January 1943, the airfield was bombed and Israel, 32, was one of six killed. He is buried at the Dely Ibrahim War Cemetery in Algiers.

Document about Israel Lieberman

Sylvain Kluska was a young Jewish artist of Polish parents who studied art at St Martin’s School and had two paintings accepted by the Royal Academy for exhibition when he was 17. He enlisted in 1940 as a pilot. He joined 527 Squadron and was killed on 9 May 1944 when his Blenheim aircraft crashed. He is buried at Willesden Jewish cemetery. He was 33.

Grave of Sylvain Kluska

Lili Bankier was born in Poland and emigrated to British Mandate Palestine in 1935. She joined the RAF with the Leading Aircraft Women based at the Meteorological Forecast Unit. On 28 July 1945 her aircraft lost power and, after a misunderstanding, Lili was the first to be pushed out of the aircraft exit, and was killed upon hitting a building. Her body was flown to Palestine the next day, and on 30 July 1945 was buried near the summit of the Mount of Olives Cemetery in Jerusalem.

Lili Bankier’s grave in Jerusalem
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