Families of 11 Harrow Jewish servicemen who died during the Second World War have been brought together by the chance discovery of a long-lost memorial board at Pinner Synagogue.
The wooden memorial was found at the back of a rarely-accessed storeroom underneath a stairwell during refurbishment work.
It is believed the board was displayed in the old Harrow Synagogue and brought to Pinner after its closure in 1972. Now restored, the board has a prominent position in the Pinner shul hall.
Among the servicemen was the Rev Solly Hooker, who was Harrow Synagogue minister before becoming an army chaplain during the war. Another was Captain Simmon Latutin, who was posthumously awarded the George Cross for gallantry.
Tracing the families has been a labour of love for Pinner congregants, in particular Laurence Harris, a professional family historian and specialist in Jewish genealogical research who has also been an adviser to the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?
The online JC archives were a rich source of information, with family announcements leading to surviving friends and relatives. Military records were also fruitful, providing information about three of the servicemen. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission furnished details such as place of burial — and often names of parents. Help was also provided by the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, the Royal Air Force Museum and the Ministry of Defence.
Mr Harris discovered that two of the men commemorated, Corporal Harold Simmonds and Sergeant Alfred Sandow, were uncle and nephew. They were also the oldest and the youngest of the 11. Corporal Simmonds, a wireless operator attached to RAF Bournemouth, was 45 when he died after his billet was bombed. Sergeant Sandow was 21 when his Lancaster bomber was shot down over Holland on a mission to Germany.
Captain Latutin was a talented violinist who joined the London Symphony Orchestra at the age of 20. He was decorated for gallantry after attempting to rescue three men from a blazing rocket inferno in Mogadishu. All, including Captain Latutin, subsequently died of their injuries.
The majority were interred where they died in places far from home — India and Iran, for example. One of the 11, Flight Sergeant David Cohen, has no known grave. He was reported “missing in action” after his plane did not return from a bombing mission.
More than 50 relatives of the men were among the 300 at a rededication service at Pinner on Remembrance Sunday. Thrilled at the turnout, organiser Brian Aisenberg said: “To have an opportunity like this where we can come together and pay our respects to these men 70 years after they died is absolutely incredible.”
Those at the ceremony included Peter Tarl from Stanmore, a nephew of Flight Sergeant Joey Shaer, a Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve member who died, aged 24, in 1944 when his plane crashed near Oxford as he was returning to base.
Although Mr Tarl was just one-year-old when his uncle died, he recalled that his grandparents often talked about their lost son.
“It was said in the family that my grandmother never got over Joey’s death,” he recalled, “and though she did not die until 1963, it was rumoured to be of a broken heart”.
FORCES CHAPLAIN WHO HOPED FOR PEACE, NOT HATE
The Rev Solly Hooker was born in 1915 in London’s East End to immigrants from Lithuania. He studied at Jews’ College and University College London, gaining a BA in semitics. After working at the Central Synagogue as student minister, he was appointed to lead Harrow Synagogue in 1939.
In 1942, Mr Hooker became a forces chaplain, serving with the Eighth Army in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Italy. In a letter home, he wrote: “I am learning and I am strong and I am confident in ultimate success. G-d bless my darling wife and daughters, and may we soon experience the grand reunion — peace and love, where now is war and hate.”
In August 1945, he returned home on leave, seeing his younger daughter for the first time on her second birthday. He was posted to India in September. There, after developing a tumour on the brain, he was admitted to the British military hospital, where he died the following February, aged 31. He was buried in the Madras war cemetery.
Mr Hooker’s two daughters, who live in New Zealand and Israel, were “heartbroken” at being unable to attend the Pinner service. However, his brother and sister-in-law, Cyril and Sally Hooker, were among a group of relatives present, Mrs Hooker in a dual capacity, as her uncle, Hillier Field, was another of the 11 soldiers remembered.
Now almost 80, Cyril Hooker said his brother “was already 18 when I was born, but I remember him as a very loving person. When he was able to take time off from his studies, he took his younger brothers and sisters to see his favourite Disney cartoons.”