Life & Culture

A tribute to Solly, lost but in our hearts

Lawrence Cohen pays tribute to Solomon Rodkoff at the end of the year that marked the 75th anniversary of his death in Normandy, 1944


A yellowing page torn from the JC of July 16th 1943 lists the casualties; those killed in action and on active service, the wounded, the missing and the prisoners of war. At the foot of the page there is a photo of my cousin, Sylvia, Corporal S Fenton, from the Mile End Road in the uniform of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force who has been Mentioned in Dispatches and listed in the King’s Birthday Honours. Seventy years later I interviewed Sylvia and recorded her remarkable story on video, so her great grandchildren should know her, now that she too has passed.

But what of the fallen? For those of us born to the survivors, there are no memories, only names, mentioned in passing at Seder tables, or images in a family album. We never knew them, and even those who did are getting fewer and frailer with each year that passes. How to honour the Jews who served in the British armed forces and were lost? Here is one story pieced together from recollections of a fast receding past, from a letter, from a photograph, from a visit to a grave, and, more recently, from an internet search.

At a hearing convened by the London Beth Din at the end of World War Two, a man and a woman come before a rabbinic court to perform the ritual of halitzah. The man testifies that he is not willing to take the childless widow of his deceased brother for his wife. In response, the woman removes the shoe from the man’s left foot, spits into it and makes the declaration: thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house. She is now free to marry whom she chooses. In reality, the hearing is a formality; the man already has a wife and a child of his own and there is another on the way.

The man is my father-in-law to be, Myer Rodkoff. The woman is Sally, nee Sarah Bloom, the widow of Soloman Rodkoff. At the end of the year that marked the 75th anniversary of his death, in Normandy on Tammuz 7 5704, June 28 1944, this is his tribute.

According to his sister, Rene, Solly was a spieler, a gambler, thrown out of the family’s Jubilee Street tenement by his father, on more than one occasion. Though Rene and her siblings were born and raised in poverty, the good name of the family was at stake and Solly was only readmitted on his promise to take up a respectable trade. But even a wife couldn’t keep him at home when the call came to join the fight against Fascism. Enlisting, as a volunteer, rather than waiting to be conscripted, Solly, now Rifleman Rodkoff, was assigned to the sharp end of the Allied invasion force: 8th Rifle Brigade, part of the 11th Armoured Division, charged with leading the break-out from the Normandy beaches on D Day.

We can never know the precise circumstances of Solly’s death. A letter from the Senior Jewish Chaplain, Second Army, dated 30th August 1944, provides some details; a small measure of comfort to his grieving parents: “Dear Mr and Mrs Rodkoff

First of all, let me express to you my heartfelt condolences and deepest sympathy in this tragic loss which you have been called upon to bear. I can only pray that the knowledge that he died at the Front, in the cause of the Liberation of Europe and of our people, will help to assuage your keen sorrow.

Your son’s death affected the whole unit deeply. In the morning he had an amazing escape, a shell hitting his vehicle and passing through the engine, without touching him. He was congratulated on all sides at his good fortune, and in the afternoon he was wounded and evacuated. It was not realized how seriously wounded he was by his unit, but he died the same day at the Field Ambulance and was buried by the chaplain to the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry who was present.

I received all these particulars from his unit, when I visited it at Myer’s request, and I can therefore speak directly of the great esteem in which he was held by his unit, as a fearless and gallant soldier, and a good comrade.

May the Almighty send you His Comfort and Consolation.”

According to a memoir by a fellow soldier, it was German Tiger Tanks which caused heavy casualties among 13 Platoon; four men were killed, including Solly, and there were numerous wounded in the fight to throw the enemy off of Hill 112, soon to become a killing field for an entire British division.

I discovered that Solly was nick-named Russia by his comrades; a recognition of his parentage and the respect which the British squaddies had for the Red Army which was winning the war in the east. In fact, the Rodkoffs were from the Ukrainian town of Kamenetz Podolsk; they just fancied themselves as Russians.

Solly’s death was not the only tribulation suffered by his family in 1944. In October, Solly’s half-sister, Bessie, was killed along with her husband and son in a V2 missile attack on London. For them there is no memorial; only entries in the registers of birth, marriage and death.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that we found Solly. Together with my wife, Solly’s niece, and our two young children, I drove the A413 from Caen to the Banneville-La-Campagne British military cemetery. There, in the furthest row, lies Solly. A photograph taken shortly after his internment shows a temporary memorial; a wooden Magen David bearing his name, rank and number, the initials KA (killed in action) and the date of his death. Now a standard Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone marks his last resting place.

Among the fallen, there is a scattering of other Jewish graves: Cyril Litwak, Emanuel Mossack, Mendle Rottman, Vitalis Weingreen, Anthony Ekstein, Harry Garfunkle, Joseph Abrahams, Arthur Marks. They served in units ranging from the Royal Armoured Corps to the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. They hailed from a variety of locations: Manchester, Hull, the London contingent from Bow, Dalston, Mile End and the Upper Clapton Road.

Of Solly, little remains apart from the stone; an entry in the cemetery records, a photograph of him in uniform taken with his brother Myer, a letter of consolation. There should have been a child: his widow, Sally, who spat in the shoe of her brother-in-law, to manifest her contempt at his refusal to build up his brother’s house, was pregnant at the time of her husband’s death, but she miscarried and the families lost touch.

My guess is that the halitzah ceremony weighed heavily on Myer. He had failed to talk his younger brother out of enlisting in the infantry; cannon fodder in his own words. So, when in the following year a girl was born to his wife, Nancy, he named his daughter Sonia. Sonia, my wife, a living memorial to her uncle Solly. Zichrono Livrachah; his memory for a blessing.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive