Most people know of Ajex —the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women — as the people who parade down Whitehall every November to commemorate fallen comrades.
But the organisation’s work goes far beyond this high-profile event. With 3,500 members, the majority of whom served in the Second World War, Ajex fulfils a vital role in providing financial support and practical aid to veterans.
Ajex was founded in 1921 by widows of First World War soldiers who wanted to come together to remember their husbands. Today it has 40 branches spread across the UK. It receives no public funding and is supported by donations, legacies and the annual subscription fees of £5 per member.
But with the number of veterans reducing over time, members recognises that the association’s future role will centre on teaching new generations about the contribution made to the British armed forces by Jewish servicemen.
“We now see our welfare and remembrance role expanding into education,” says national chairman Jeffrey Fox.
“We have established the Jewish Military Museum, currently located in Hendon, and we attract groups, Jewish and non-Jewish from all over the world.
“We also have mobile displays and we regularly visit schools to give added value to history lessons. Jewish veterans take display items of military equipment and uniforms which the children can touch and feel. They hear the experiences of these former servicemen and women first hand. It’s an experience that can’t be gained by reading a history book.”
Jack Zussman, aged 88, is a member of his local Ajex branch in Manchester. He was decorated with the Arctic Star medal for his service on a Russian convoy during the war
He agrees that there is a concern about the future of the group “because survivors are getting fewer all the time, so we’re trying to get people from post-Second World War services involved — even youngsters from the JLGB.”
Ajex has encouraged younger members of the community to take part in this year’s annual parade at the Cenotaph on November 17, which will be attended by 2,000 Jewish veterans, families and supporters. Prince Michael of Kent will be the reviewing officer — his wife Princess Michael of Kent will also be present.
Ajex member Yvonne Phelops, who was three-years-old when the war broke out in 1939, recognises how vital it is to involve the new generation.
“Young people must come to the parade to say thank you… to the Jewish boys who gave their lives so we could be here today. It is important that we also say thank you to the survivors – while they’re still alive,” she says.
Mrs Phelops and her husband, former Ajex National Chairman Dr Arnold Phelops, who served in the Royal Army Dental Corps in the 1950s, have both given talks to secondary school students at JFS and Hasmonean, about their experiences.
“If Jews hadn’t served.” argues Mrs Phelops, “we wouldn’t be here today. I have always believed that you should say thank you to people when they’re alive, not when they’re gone.
“I go to the parade every year wearing my hat full of poppies.”
Mr Fox insists that it is important for “the wider Jewish community to join in the national mood of reflection on those who have fought and fallen in the service of this country”.
At least 3,500 British Jews died serving the Allied Forces in the Second World War.
Mr Fox adds that: “We have a duty to keep the memory alive of all those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and pay tribute to those who fought and survived.
“To this day Ajex works to help our veterans in every possible way, medically, financially, with housing and with moral support. Our network of volunteers works tirelessly to this end.
“Ajex is determined that its work will continue and its doors are now open to former national servicemen, serving Jewish personnel and former and present members of the emergency services. We are happy to grant membership to families of veterans too.
“We remain an active organisation that will adapt and change with the times. We are here to stay and our message is strong. We have lost Jewish soldiers in recent conflicts including Northern Ireland, The Falklands and Afghanistan.
“We have a duty to ensure that the Jewish community — and indeed the wider community — do not forget the contribution that has been made for the security of our country and indeed the safety of the world.”