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Remembrance remains a sacred duty for us all

Simon Kritz was a thinker, a self-made man and a person who tried to live his entire life in an upright and honest way. I was also exceptionally privileged to be able to call him my grandfather, writes Yoni Birnbaum.

    Simon Kritz in his army uniform
    Simon Kritz in his army uniform (Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum)

    Simon Kritz was one of the estimated 30,000 Jewish soldiers who served with distinction in the British Armed Forces during the Second World War, seeing active duty in Egypt, North Africa, India, Iraq and Burma. Shortly after he passed away in 2005, his wife found a remarkable letter in his desk. It had been written to a close friend from his army days, a gentleman called Harry Swales, who incidentally wasn’t Jewish. It read as follows:

    “Dear Harry. A letter to you I shall never post. Memories are all we have left and even this becomes dimmer as time passes us by. And time travels faster as every month goes past. As I sit in my room, the sun is pouring in and I remember those afternoons when we walked together in Alexandria. Can you imagine — sixty-three years ago.

    “Much happened to us on our travels. Our children and grandchildren will never know that this generation owes its very existence to us and our generation; who served the cause of justice against murder. Our term extended over 6 ½ years of which neither of us saw our parents for at least 5 ½ years.

    “Was it worth it? The answer must be yes. This world would have been very different without us. The ordinary man, who at the time, felt a loyalty that does not exist today.

    “I feel the urge to write our history, but where do I commence? Southampton to Cherbourg, on to Alexandria, up on the ‘blue’. The Western Desert forces, remember the comradeship, how we helped each other…we are being strafed…death was present every day, casualties came in and were evacuated to the rear, eventually ending up in Cairo. It all seems such a long time ago and has no relevance to the conditions of the 21st century, either the people or the country…”

    Simon Kritz’s letter, which has never previously been published, is exceptionally moving. Penned at some point during his final years, it is one small snapshot of the experiences of one man serving in the British Army during the war. But it also hints at the endless dilemmas and inner turmoil felt by so many Jewish veterans who survived. Questions about whether anyone would understand what they had been through, and how their lives might have turned out differently if not for the war.

    We often speak of “sacrifice” in the context of those who gave their all in the field of conflict. Many indeed paid the ultimate sacrifice. But even those who survived often had to give up so much that we take for granted for the rest of their lives. Aside from the permanent scars of war, there were countless lost dreams. Disrupted education and the simple economic reality of having to immediately earn money upon their return, meant that, for many veterans, their lives took a very different path than the one they had dreamed of.

    Simon Kritz was an exceptional son, writing home twice a week, without fail, to his parents throughout the war. In those letters, he made many references to his aspiration to go to medical school. He had a passion for the subject, and in particular for medical research.

    But, after the war, he joined his father’s business in the shmatteh trade. At the age of 27, the prospect of him then commencing medical school was simply unrealistic. He had to go to work without delay in order to help support the family.

    Simon Kritz was a thinker, a self-made man and a person who tried to live his entire life in an upright and honest way. I was also exceptionally privileged to be able to call him my grandfather. Yet, the way he ultimately coped with those lost dreams was through focusing on building the future, rather than dwelling on the past.

    Writing down his thoughts in hospital towards the very end of his life, he recalled how his father, a chazan, would cry when he recited the famous words in the High Holy Day liturgy, that life is like a “fleeting dream”.

    “I have tried”, wrote my grandfather, “to leave a legacy of true Judaism, love and truth”.

    During this month, we pay tribute to all Jewish ex-servicemen and women, wherever and however they served.

    As we do so, we have a duty to remember not only their sacrifice on the field of battle, but also the grace with which people like Simon Kritz gave away their future dreams for the sake of our tomorrows.

    Yoni Birnbaum is the Rabbi of Hadley Wood Synagogue

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