Jewish community marks 80th D-Day anniversary with beacon lighting

Jewish community marks 80th D-Day anniversary with beacon lighting

For Jewish News June 2024

Heartbreaking testimonies of everyday heroism moved an audience close to tears as the Jewish community marked the 80th anniversary of D Day, or Operation Overlord, the Allies’ move into Nazi-occupied Europe which turned the tide of the Second World War.

David Teacher, who was a member of the RAF Beach Units, died just two weeks ago, aged 100. But his memories of D-Day — June 6 1944 — were clear and vivid. In a filmed testimony, he declared: “I just wanted to get at the bastards”, adding: “If I had to do it all over again, I would.”

AJEX national chairman Dan Fox, resplendent in his army uniform, reminded the packed audience at the JFS campus that Jews had served in the Allied forces in numbers “far out of proportion to our level in the population at the time — and at no time, and in no place, was that more starkly illustrated than on D-Day”. Many in the audience wore medals awarded in various conflicts, including Ron Shelley MBE, AJEX vice-president.

Fox introduced a series of veterans’ memories, including that of Walter Bingham, now aged 100 and said to be Israel’s oldest working journalist. For his actions on the Normandy beaches, going back to commandeer a second ambulance after his first was destroyed by German fire, Bingham was awarded the Military Medal — or, as he gently put it, “it was for that that I was noted”.

Stanley Fisher, who landed at Arromanches on the Normandy coast, remembered wistfully: “If someone fell by your side, you just carried on”. And Mervyn Kersh, now 99, who has spent the week in Normandy taking part in the 80th anniversary events, spoke of his time in the Royal Army Ordinance Corps, landing on the beaches on D-Day plus three — June 9.

He arrived with other British army forces to liberate the concentration camp of Bergen Belsen. “The bodies had mostly been taken away by the time I got there”, he recalled, “but those who were left were just wraiths, skeletal shadows”.

Not all the testimonies related to men: Judith Steinberg spoke about the secret work of her mother, Sheila Freedman, who supervised the building of the Mulberry harbours, floating artificial harbours used to protect the supply ships anchored off the Normandy coast. Ms Steinberg said her mother would regularly visit the south coast factories and workshops where the harbours were being assembled to ensure that everything was being built exactly according to instructions. “The men used to say that they were following the plans but didn’t know what they were working on. And my mother would say, don’t you worry about that, just keep doing exactly as you have been told”. Dan Fox presented her with a memorial tablet from AJEX, honouring her mother.

Keith Black, chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, and Adrian Cohen, senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies, shared their own family memories of D-Day while exhorting the community always to keep the bravery and courage of the Jewish military in their minds. It was a message echoed by Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis, who spoke of the importance of remembering “thousands of people who sacrificed themselves for the sake of others, displaying maximum courage, selflessness and bravery.” Such courage, he said, had parallels with what was happening in Israel today.

Then it was time for the packed audience to file out into the courtyard of the JFS school, escorted by JFS and JCoss cadets, for the Jewish community’s part in the national D-Day beacon lighting.

All around the country beacons were lit at the same time, 9.15 pm, to mark the 80th anniversary, and philanthropist Leo Noé stepped forward to ignite the Jewish community’s beacon — rings of metal etched with the names of the Normandy beaches, Juno, Sword, Utah, Omaha and Gold. Prayers and kaddish were recited with participation from Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of the Masorti movement, and a Royal Navy chaplain. Young and old alike made the solemn pledge: “We will remember them”.

  • 7 June, 2024