Still marching, the Ajex heroes who defy time

The remembrance parade of Jewish ex-servicemen and women has become a unifying force in Anglo-Jewish culture


By Michael Freedland, November 17, 2011
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The Ajex parade at the Cenotaph. At its height, over 10,000 men and women participated each November.

The Ajex parade at the Cenotaph. At its height, over 10,000 men and women participated each November.

It is not unknown for Jews to make up new words. It is part of the psyche of a people as rich in vocabulary as in history. But there is one four-letter word that is wonderfully redolent of service to the Anglo-Jewish community. It will not be found in any dictionary. It is frequently misspelt. But at this time of year, in particular, it should be on the lips of every thinking British Jew. The word is Ajex.

Ajex is the acronym for the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women and this is going to be their weekend. More specifically, their Sunday. For at two o'clock on Sunday afternoon Ajex unveils its shop window. A thousand men and women, most of them war veterans, will march past the Cenotaph in Whitehall, doff their hats (many of them will be wearing the freshly brushed bowlers that only come out at this time of the year) as they pass the memorial, lay a wreath in the form of a Magen David and are inspected by a senior officer from one of the four services – the army, navy, RAF and marines.

Most important of all, they take part in an open-air service conducted by the Chief Rabbi and two or three other clergy - amazingly, the only time in the year when the Chief Rabbi is joined by a Progressive rabbi in a religious service.

Like the national Remembrance Day service, which takes place a week earlier at the same venue, the Ajex service is always accompanied by a military band - and by people (more last year than for several years) in the street, joining in a stirring rendition of Adon Olam.

Lord Montgomery makes the inspection in 1949

Lord Montgomery makes the inspection in 1949

People always ask why it is necessary to have a specifically Jewish service. The answer is in the question. It is a specifically Jewish service to honour specifically Jewish servicemen who specifically fought for their country.

The parade has stayed in the affections of Anglo-Jewry for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, it is an occasion of dignity and ceremony unmatched by Jews at any other time in any other place. As Ron Shelley, Ajex's vice-president, says: "We have people from France coming every year; a few - less than at one time - from America; in the past a Russian general, and they always come from Israel, too. Nobody else does this kind of thing."

The parade organisers do it with the help of the police, who man the ramparts looking out for trouble, which fortunately has never come. The organisers have the admiration of the Royal British Legion, which has never regarded the Ajex event as stepping on their toes.

"There are hundreds of other ex-service organisations," as Shelley notes. Many of them, of course, exist to run clubs, serve beer, hold social functions - and do good work. Ajex is an organisation that concentrates, not just on the parade, and on welfare work, on running a magnificent museum, on helping students as well as old people, but also on passing on a message too. It is a simple one - that Jews have always played their part. And it is the parade that brings it all into sharp focus.

A few weeks ago, the JC carried an account of the antisemitism of the celebrated children's author Roald Dahl. In the 1980s Dahl went on record saying that he never knew a Jew who served in the British armed forces and was convinced that no one else had seen one either. Fortuitously, he said it two weeks before that year's parade. It was a wonderful refutation at just the right time.

The parades have been taking place since 1928, when the wreath was laid by a 97-year-old Corporal (retired) H. Jessel, a veteran of the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. In the earliest years, a familiar figure was the legless World War One veteran, Colonel Sir Brunel Cohen, in his body-length bath chair. Then there was Lieutenant Tommy Gould, one of Ajex's proudest figures - he won the VC in World War Two and his medal is in the care of the organisation today.

And always, until his death just a couple of years ago, on the platform, Major Edmund de Rothschild, who knew his way around the corridors of power and reputedly only had to lift his little finger to get a senior officer to take the salute. These have included the Duke of Edinburgh (twice), Lord Montgomery and Lord Mountbatten and his daughter, the present Countess Mountbatten. These days, a letter goes to the Chief of the Defence Staff asking him to grant Ajex the honour of his presence - and if he has already done the job, to nominate someone else.

The late Philip Mishon, whose suave figure was another regular on the parades of which he used to be the chief organiser, used to say they had Prince Charles up their sleeves, but would not ask him until they had decided that the time had come for the last parade to be scheduled.

So when will that be? Not this year, not next. But they are thinking about it. "Inevitably, it has to be in the next decade. Our members are growing old," says Shelley, now 82 and a former national serviceman.

(It is one of his regrets that more national servicemen have not joined Ajex; but it has to be admitted that remembrance does not have quite the appeal for them as it does for people who actually fought in one of the two world wars.)

There was a time when 10,000 men and women paraded each November, coming from all over Britain. Last year, there were just 750, augmented by youth groups (including grandchildren of ex-servicemen who lay their own wreath), serving men and women in uniform, and - as always - members of the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade. Even so, there are still 3,500 Ajex members.

The parade costs £20,000 to organise and now the top brass are thinking of what will happen when it is no longer sensible to spend that money. "We might well have a smaller service of thanksgiving, instead of a service of remembrance. I think we will concentrate on the Jewish military museum," says Shelley.

The museum, in Hendon, is another jewel in the Ajex crown, a permanent demonstration of the Jewish contribution to the armed services, with exhibits ranging from the work of chaplains in the war, particularly at the liberation of the death camps, to a portrait of the admiral who captained a ship in General Wolf's campaign against the French in Canada, 250 years ago.

Over the years, Ajex has been in the forefront of the fight against antisemitism (work now taken over by the Community Security Trust). It led delegations to the Soviet embassy on behalf of Russian Jewry and, earlier, to the West German embassy when a resurgence of Nazism in the country seemed likely. For many years, squads of Ajex members used to work in British hospitals at Christmas as a gesture of thanks for the times non-Jewish servicemen stepped in to allow Jews to celebrate their holidays. "But then we discovered," says Shelley, "that the nurses enjoyed coming in on Christmas themselves. So that was the end of that."

The organisation is always conscious of the past. In 2005, there was a service at the war cemetery at the site of the Battle of the Somme. Ajex had been told that a Private Harry Steinberg of the Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment was buried under a tombstone engraved with a cross. So they arranged with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for a Magen David to be substituted.

"We had to provide proof that he was, in fact, Jewish," says Shelley, "so we got out a copy of the JC for the week in which he was killed in 1916 and there it was, a death announcement. We are now working on three or four similar cases."

But it is obvious that the present, too, is very much in the organisation's thoughts. For years, it ran Ajex House, a block of flats purely for Jewish ex-servicemen. It is still there for that purpose, although now run under the auspices of the Industrial Dwellings Society.

And then there is the future. The organisation annually gives a bursary to students - "for undergraduates planning a dissertation on any aspect of British Jewish military history," says Shelley. "A small grant, advice and help in research and so on. It all helps to tell the story."

It says a lot for an organisation that likes to prove it is more than just a parade, living on more than just memories.

The Ajex parade takes place on Sunday in Whitehall from 2pm

Last updated: 11:23am, November 17 2011