LONDON — When British novelist Alan Fenton told a business acquaintance that his two much older brothers had died in World War II, he encountered a surprised response.
After what Fenton recalled as an “embarrassed pause,” his lunchtime companion said: “I didn’t think Jews fought in the war.”
As Fenton later wrote, “Those words were like a blow to the stomach.”
The twins, Basil and Gerald Felsenstein (as the family were then called), volunteered to join the Royal Air Force as aircrew at the war’s outbreak in September 1939. Their horrified father tried to talk them out of it and persuade them to opt for potentially less dangerous options, such as joining the army or RAF ground crew. But the teenagers were adamant and, as Jews, determined to get into the thick of the fight to defeat the Nazis as soon as they could.
Neither young man survived the war. Gerald — whose role was to lie flat in Halifax bombers and direct the pilot until its explosive cargo was released on enemy targets — died in a raid over Germany in March 1943. Just under two years later, Basil died in a patrol over Japanese-occupied Burma.
“They fought for a cause they believed passionately in. And they died for it. I am enormously proud of them,” said Fenton, who was born seven years after Basil’s death.
Their stories are among those being collected by London’s RAF Museum as part of its new Jewish “Hidden Heroes” project. As the UK prepares to mark the 80th anniversary of the “Battle of Britain” this summer — when the country’s air force successfully repelled a planned German invasion — the program aims to raise awareness about the role played by Jewish personnel in the RAF during WWII.
The museum is asking surviving Jewish RAF veterans, together with their families and friends, to submit their stories so they can be preserved and shared online. More than 50 have already been received. It also intends to use the stories — some of which are being drawn from the RAF archives — in videos and displays at the museum’s galleries. A digital storytelling site, featuring Jewish former air force personnel and their families, is now online and a program of community talks, including in schools, is planned to take place over the next three years.
The project is being sponsored by Chelsea FC and owner Roman Abramovich as part of the football club’s effort to fight anti-Semitism. The Chelsea Foundation launched the “Say No To Antisemitism” campaign in January 2018.
“Chelsea FC and club owner Roman Abramovich are committed to tackling anti-Semitism through education and the Jewish ‘Hidden Heroes’ tells important stories about the bravery of Jewish RAF personnel during the conflict,” Chelsea chairman, Bruce Buck, said in a press statement when the partnership between the club and the museum was announced in December. “There can be no place in our society for anti-Semitism or any form of discrimination — and we are determined to join with others to tackle this vital cause,” he added.
Significant, overlooked, roles
One of the stories already submitted to the museum is that of Michael Oser Weizmann, son of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president. A scientist like his father, Weizmann was also an RAF pilot and worked for the Coastal Command Development Unit. Its job was to develop new technologies and tactics for coastal command aircraft in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Weizmann, who flew Whitley bombers, was killed at the age of 25 in February 1942, when a plane he was traveling in developed engine failure and ditched in the Bay of Biscay. Weizmann’s body was never recovered but he is commemorated, along with the five other men he died with, at the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial.
While largely untold, the role British Jews played in the RAF was significant. The museum has calculated that about 20,000 Jews — six percent of the UK Jewish population at the time — served in the RAF during the war. Of these, 900 lost their lives. Moreover, the proportion of Jews who participated in the Battle of Britain is believed to have been more than double their 0.5 percent of the UK population.
Jews were not merely the passive victims of the Second World War. Jews fought back
“Jews were not merely the passive victims of the Second World War. Jews fought back – and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the actions of the Jewish men and women of the wartime Royal Air Force,” the project’s historian, author Joshua Levine, wrote in a feature for the RAF Association magazine this month.
The tales Levine — whose uncle, Sam Levine, volunteered and became a pilot — unearths underline that the Felsenstein brothers’ desire to fight the Germans was widely shared by many Jews.
“Sir, I am a Jew, and my war with the enemy began long before September 1939,” Bernard Kregor told an officer who asked him why he was volunteering for the especially perilous task of navigating bombers.
Unsurprisingly, many other Jews similarly felt that Germany had been at war with them for many years.
Sam and Doris Miara, for instance, abandoned their Cardiff home and clothing business after Kristallnacht to join the RAF. Doris rose to become a corporal in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Sam’s Wellington bomber, however, did not return from a raid over the Libyan port of Derna during the 1941 Middle East campaign.
Not only British Jews enlisted to RAF
William Nelson, a young Jewish Canadian, signed-up even earlier than the Miaras, volunteering for the RAF two years before the outbreak of war. When the inevitable conflict came, he wrote to his parents: “I thank God that I shall be able to destroy the regime that persecutes the Jews.”
I thank God that I shall be able to destroy the regime that persecutes the Jews
Nelson was, in the famous words of Winston Churchill, one of “the few” — the fighter pilots who battled to maintain air superiority over southern England in the summer of 1940 — to whom “the many” owed so much during Britain’s moment of maximum peril. Like Sam Miara, he too paid with his life, shot down a day after the Battle of Britain officially ended in October 1940.
Nelson, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, symbolizes the fact that it wasn’t just Britons who helped to frustrate “Operation Sea Lion,” Hitler’s code name for the invasion of the UK. In all, pilots and aircrew from 16 nations, including Poland, New Zealand, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Belgium, South Africa and France, participated in what was an international effort.
Albert Waxman, whose Polish parents were living in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht, was one of the thousands of young Jews rescued by the Kindertransport and brought to Britain in the months before the outbreak of war.
The teenager was “exceptionally determined” to join the RAF, as his son recalls in a video interview for the project. His certificate of service from the Air Training Corps, in which he enrolled in in 1942 described him as “a Polish subject but very anxious to join the RAF” and noted that he “showed exceptional aptitude [and] should make a good pilot.”
As his son suggests, Waxman also displayed a high degree of chutzpah. To join the RAF, he needed the permission of the Polish Embassy in London. Waxman traveled down to the capital from the north of England with only enough money for a single fare. He left the Polish Embassy with the permission he required — and the money for his return fare back to Yorkshire.
A large dose of chutzpah
Similar chutzpah was shown by Georg Hein, another refugee from Nazi Germany, as Levine recounts in a retelling of his story. Hein came to Britain in 1934 and, after several years of schooling and a stint at the London School of Economics, he had developed an English accent.
“He was indistinguishable from an English boy, the only difference was his name,” suggests Levine. But a brush with the law in the late 1930s landed Hein in prison. On his release soon after the war began, he was told to immediately register as an “enemy alien” with the police. Enemy aliens were the citizens of countries with which Britain was at war, but who resided in the UK.
Hein, however, had no intention of doing so. Instead, he visited a local graveyard where a dead schoolfriend, Peter Stevens, was buried. Having ascertained Steven’s date of birth, he went to a government office and, posing as the dead boy, obtained his birth certificate. With that vital document in his hands, Hein went to the RAF enlistment office and joined the air force as Peter Stevens. Having done, in Levine’s words, “exceptionally well,” Stevens graduated from navigator to pilot.
The British police, however, were by now on his trail and were close to apprehending him. Before they were able to do so, in September 1941, Stevens was shot down over Holland and captured by the Germans.
He then undertook a number of escape attempts, on one occasion absconding from German military police by dropping on to the railway tracks from a moving train. On another, he audaciously took a shower with prison guards as part of a bid to slip away with them. He also assisted the famous “Wooden Horse Escape,” when three Allied prisoners of war broke out of Stalag Luft III in 1943. And, through all of this, the Germans never discovered that Peter Stevens was, in fact, Jewish refugee Georg Hein.
When the war ended and he returned to Britain, Stevens’s deceit went unpunished and his daring and bravery were rightly rewarded. The RAF awarded him a Military Cross, promoted him to squadron leader and allowed him to retain his identity as Peter Stevens.
Doubled risk if captured
The risk taken by Jews who joined the RAF was particularly high. If they were shot down over enemy territory and survived, an uncertain fate awaited them if it was discovered they were Jewish. Some Jewish airmen chose to remove their identity disc, which displayed their religion, before they took off from the UK.
Others, however, refused to. Alfred Huberman, who took part in 38 operations, is still alive at the age of 97. “I was born a Jew and I’ll die a Jew,” he said of his decision not to remove his disc. He is blunt about his reason for signing up for the RAF: “It was heroic to be in the air force and I wanted to get my own back on the Germans. I wanted to have a go back at them.”
Of course, those performing vital tasks on the ground also played a role in the Battle of Britain. A member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, 21-year-old Joan Myers was based at Biggin Hill in Kent — the busiest airfield during the battle — in the summer of 1940.
Working in the operations room, her job was to use information from radar stations to place counters on a plotting table which pinpointed and tracked the location of enemy aircraft. Spitfires and hurricanes could then be dispatched on a particular course and sent to engage the German planes.
As Levine says: “These plots proved to be so accurate that the Germans actually believed the British to have many more fighters than they really had because there always seemed to be fighters up to meet them whenever they came over. This was how the Battle of Britain was fought.”
Nor were those who worked at Biggin Hill — “my strongest link,” as Churchill called it — free from danger. It was bombed heavily by the Luftwaffe, with one raid in late August 1940 killing 40 base personnel.
Living memory is fast turning to history
Myers, however, survived, and lived until 2011. But, as Levine writes of the “Hidden Heroes” program, “we will soon be at a point where there is nobody left who can recall these events.”
“Living memory is fast turning to history. This is why it is so crucial that we remember the stories of these Jewish men and women who have helped to preserve freedom for those of us who came after them. They did fight back — the evidence is here. We owe them so much. And the importance of this project cannot be overstated,” writes Levine.
To share a story, download the RAF Stories app or contact their team at: firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 1902 376 237.