In August 1939, Bernard Sandler, a Jewish teenager from Leeds, England, went on a school trip to Canada and the United States. It changed the course of his life in ways he could not have foreseen.
Two months shy of his 17th birthday, Sandler enjoyed Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto and Niagara Falls. Then, just as he and his classmates were taking in the sights of New York City, war broke out in Europe.
It was dangerous to cross the Atlantic because the Germans were targeting British vessels. Some of Sandler’s friends dared the journey home, but his parents advised him to stay put. Family friends took him in for a few years, but he was essentially stranded — alone in a far-away country, indefinitely.
The recently published graphic memoir “The English GI” by Sandler’s grandson, Jonathan Sandler, tells the story of how the elder Sandler grew up fast in the six ensuing years until World War II ended. He learned to make his own way, was drafted into the United States military, became a naturalized US citizen, saw action in France, and was wounded.
Before being inducted, he took advantage of what New York had to offer by pursuing higher education, learning about progressive politics, enjoying the arts scene, and meeting the woman who would become his wife. In many ways, he became the adult he would be for the rest of his life until his death at 75 in 1998.
Sandler recalled all this in an unpublished memoir he wrote in 1995, a year after the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Sandler had 50 copies printed and distributed them to family members.
Jonathan Sandler, 43, told The Times of Israel in a conversation from his home in London that he is fortunate to have his grandfather’s memoir.
“He died when I was 18, so I was fortunate to know him well. I spent a lot of time with him, especially doing things related to the arts, culture, and theater, which were his passion,” Sandler said.
When Sandler’s own three children asked him a couple of years ago about their family’s connection to the war, he decided it was time to take his grandfather’s memoir off the shelf and do something with it.
A software project manager, Sandler started working on “The English GI” as a hobby. It is his first book, and he relied on skills gained in a comics writing course, and by using a variety of graphic novels as inspiration.
“I could visualize the scenes in my grandfather’s memoir. I chose to do a graphic novel, but it could have also been a film or play. I was excited to relearn and relive his experiences through art,” Sandler said.
Bernard Sandler’s memoir is the primary source for “The English GI.” Snippets from it form the main narrative, and longer excerpts are also included. Excerpts from family letters and documents, and quotes from historical figures such as General George S. Patton, commander of the Seventh US Army and the Third US Army in WWII, also appear.
Sandler explained that he deliberately chose not to include dialogue in the graphic panels. It was a challenge to cover six years in a quick read that is accessible to an audience of all ages. Adding dialogue between characters would make things too cumbersome and long. (The 42-page epilogue and appendix run nearly half as long as the graphic part of the book.)
Sandler also engaged in historical research to maintain accuracy.
“I felt it was most important for me to get everything about the time my grandfather was in the army and combat right, so I needed to research this,” Sandler said.
He came upon nine memoirs by soldiers who served alongside his grandfather in the 26th Infantry Division of the US Army, known as the “Yankee Division” — named for the six New England states whose National Guard units first populated the division during World War I.
Two of these memoirs were written by Jewish men: Robert Kotlowitz (father of award-winning journalist Alex Kotlowitz) and Benjamin Kaplow. Sandler added scenes mentioned by these men to the graphic novel, including Kaplow’s description of a Rosh Hashanah service held in a muddy field camp in France. With no shofar, they blew an army bugle instead. Kotlowitz was concerned that the “H” (for Hebrew, or Jew) on his dog tag could endanger him if he were captured by the Germans.
In his memoir, Bernard Sandler referred to his family’s concern about the spread of Nazism in Europe in the 1930s, and fascists like Oswald Mosley closer to home in Britain. However, he made no mention of experiencing antisemitism, as many other Jewish GIs did. He also did not say anything about whether he opted out of having any religious indication on his dog tags.
“I am sure he would have written about antisemitism if he had experienced it,” his grandson said.
Sandler knew he wanted a realistic visual style for “The English GI,” and had to find an appropriate illustrator. He was fortunate to connect with Brian Bicknell, a commercial artist and illustrator based in Massachusetts.
“I put out an ad on a freelancer website saying I was looking for an artist. I got 100 responses. Brian seemed really interested and was okay with my insisting on micromanaging the project. I wanted full control. We worked panel by panel together,” Sandler said.
The author did all the image research, and Bicknell did the illustration. Sandler admitted to being a stickler for detail in backgrounds and consistency of images throughout the book.
“The images of the characters did not have to be absolute lookalikes to the real people, but I wanted consistency. For example, I am not sure if my grandfather was wearing glasses at the time, but we made the decision to portray him that way and stick to it,” Sandler said.
The author brought in India-based BK Suru to create the graphic memoir’s cover and overall design.
Sketches of events of May to November 1944 made by Victor Lundy, who also served in the 26th Infantry Division, were extremely helpful to Sandler and Bicknell. Lundy, who went on to become a prominent modernist architect, donated his sketchbooks to the Library of Congress.
Like Bernard Sandler, Lundy was also in the Army Specialized Training Program, an elite stateside engineering program based at various universities that ended when the army high command decided it needed more men for the battlefield.
“We were handpicked, we were the intellectual kids… we were supposed to graduate as captains in the engineer corps, helping to rebuild Europe and assess damage after the war was over. And then the unthinkable happened,” Lundy said.
Sandler and Lundy were shipped out to France in June 1944, and both were injured in battle in November 1944.
Jonathan Sandler said he believed his grandfather’s story was unique, as he could not find other instances of other British citizens — including British Jews — fighting for the US military during WWII. However, statistics compiled after the war would indicate that Bernard Sandler probably was not completely alone.
“Foreign-born Jews served in a wide range of roles in the American Armed Forces and made a significant contribution to Allied victory,” said Kimberly Guise, senior curator and director of curatorial affairs at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
Guise emphasized Central European Jewish refugees who used their language skills to serve in the US intelligence. Statistics compiled by the US Department of Justice Immigration and Naturalization and published in October 1948 point to the possibility that other British Jews may have served.
Just over 25,000 British-born individuals were inducted or enlisted in the US military between 1940 and 1945. Over a third of them were naturalized US citizens, and the rest were non-citizens. Between 1942 and 1945, 226,500 British-born civilians and armed forces personnel took out US citizenship. Bernard Sandler was one of them.
Sandler married his wife, Taube, and the couple returned to England soon after the war and went on to have two children. Sandler went into his family’s retail business and did well for himself, his family, and the community.
“He returned because he was incredibly close to his family and wanted to make up for lost time,” his grandson said. “But he never spoke of his wartime experiences, and I regret that I never asked him.”
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