Destroying the myth

Destroying the myth

For the Jewish Chonicle, published April 27 2018

Leonard Crystall’s face, still rounded with teenage puppy fat, stares solemnly from the cover of Michael Greisman’s remarkable new book, Jews in Uniform, his sailor hat at a jaunty angle, giving no hint of the tragedy which was to befall him.

Crystall, who died aged just 18, is buried in Alexandria, Egypt. He is one of more than 100 British Jews, whose stories of service during the Second World War are told in this handsome volume — and the really special thing about the book is the wonderful images, one for each biography.

Londoner Greisman had already published a book about the famed East End Jewish wedding photographer, Boris Bennett. “I enjoyed the experience so much that I was looking for something else. Both my parents served during the war, but I realised that I did not know enough to tell my children what they did.”

So he advertised for interesting wartime stories. “There was a myth that Jews did not serve during the war,” he says, “but in fact there were Jewish men and women in every kind of uniform between 1939 and 1945. There were pilots, sailors, army heroes, ambulance drivers, secret-service men and air-raid wardens”.

Actually, 66,000 Jews served for Britain during the war. Some of the stories are of Boys’ Own heroism, some of a quiet determination to do their bit. And their pictures have been painstakingly restored by Greisman himself.

One of the first women who appears in the book is perhaps one of the best-known — Vera Atkins, who, working with the renowned Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, set up and ran the Special Operations Executive, or SOE.

Atkins recruited British agents for occupied France, supervised their training and organised their reception in France. She was one of the most powerful figures in Whitehall during the war.

But, as Greisman reveals, Vera Atkins was actually Jewish, born Vera Maria Rosenberg in Bucharest, Romania, in 1908. She had come to Britain in 1937 with her mother and had changed her surname to Atkins. She was 31 when the war broke out, and her work with Buckmaster depended heavily on her prewar studies of modern languages at the Sorbonne.

She was responsible for devising the intricate cover stories for the British agents who were dropped into France; and bore the painful responsibility to the agents whom she was sending to a possible death. She made it her business after the war to find out exactly what had happened to those who had died.

She spent many months after the war working in Germany, attached to the British war crimes commission. She interrogated many leading Nazis, including the former commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolph Hoess.

Another Jew, Bernard Clarke, played a leading role in the capture of Hoess. As Greisman relates, Clarke, whose parents were born in Germany, spoke fluent German and French. He was born in London in 1907 and was thought to be too old to be called up at the outbreak of the war.

But in 1944 he began service with a counter-intelligence unit in Germany, which was involved in tracking down Nazi war criminals. Clarke and six members of his unit finally traced Hoess’s wife, Hedwig, in March 1946. His interrogation of Hedwig Hoess led the unit to her husband, captured wearing a new pair of silk pyjamas, insisting his name was Fritz Lang!

The accompanying picture of Clarke in uniform shows an avuncular, moustached pipe-smoker with a warm smile.

Not all those portrayed are “good guys”. One of Greisman’s favourites is Peter Stevens, who was awarded the Military Cross for his attempted escapes as a prisoner of war — but who, it is clear, is likely to have ended up as a thoroughly bad lot had it not been for the war.

His real name was Georg Franz Hein, born to a Jewish family in Hanover in 1919. After he and his brother were sent to boarding school in England, their mother tried to join them but failed to make it out of Germany.

As Greisman records: “Their mother sent whatever was left of the family funds to England… but Peter managed to acquire this money and gamble it away”.

Georg/Peter became a petty criminal and was arrested in the summer of 1939 for theft. With the approach of war, he was released and ordered to report to a London police station.

Instead, Georg stole the identity of his former schoolmate, Peter Stevens, who had died years before and, on the day war broke out, enlisted in the RAF and trained as a bomber pilot.

Flight Lieutenant Stevens, as he became, was captured in 1941 after 22 combat raids. In total, he made eight escape bids. He never spoke about his wartime experiences or his Jewish identity, and died aged 60 in 1979. His story was unearthed by his son, Marc, who discovered that many members of Georg Hein’s immediate family had been murdered in the Holocaust.

Jews in Uniform teems with charmers and chancers, from the Victoria Cross hero Thomas Gould, whose film-star looks shine out from the page, to more humble contributions such as Civil Defence warden Louisa Frumkin — who became mother to former chief rabbi, Lord Sacks.

One of the most astonishing stories in the book is that of Ewen Montagu, a lawyer who returned from wartime service, became a judge, and president of the United Synagogue and the Anglo-Jewish Association.

His communal profile concealed an amazing wartime deception, Operation Mincemeat, or, as it became known in a film, The Man Who Never Was.

Operation Mincemeat was devised by Montagu, a naval intelligence officer, to make the Germans think that the Allies were going to attack in Greece, rather than Italy, in 1943. Working with RAF Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondley, Montagu used the corpse of a Welsh tramp whose death could appear to be due to drowning. The body, provided by a London coroner, was re-named with a fictitious identity, Captain William Martin of the Royal Marines. Montagu and Cholmondley created a detailed back-story for the body, including a “romance”, a bill for an engagement ring, and a fake letter from Lloyds Bank about his overdraft.

British intelligence released the body where it was sure to be found by German agents, off the coast of Spain, and the papers found on the dead man— including fake intelligence material — convinced the Germans that the Allies were indeed due to invade Greece, using troops from Libya and Egypt.

The audacious plan worked: German forces were diverted to Greece and stationed there for nearly two weeks. Greisman’s view is that Operation Mincemeat “changed the course of history [and saved] the lives of 40,000 British and Allied army personnel during D Day”.

  • 29 April, 2018