Life & Culture

Book review: The English GI - A soldier’s graphic story

Moving story told in pictures mixing maps, drawings and moving family photographs


The English GI
Edited by Jonathan Sandler, £9.99

Bernard Sandler grew up in pre-war Leeds. His father Hymie and his uncle Jonah were both born in Latvia but came to England in 1910, Jewish immigrants unable to speak a word of English. In 1937, Bernard accompanied his father on a trip to Latvia to meet his relatives. In August 1939, just before his 17th birthday, Bernard went on a school trip to North America.

War broke out almost immediately and Sandler found himself stranded when the British government decided that U-Boats made it too dangerous for Sandler and his schoolmates to return home across the Atlantic.

Bernard spent the first two years of the war in the relative safety of America rather than serving in the British Army, but after Pearl Harbor he was drafted in the US Army and ended up serving in Europe.

Fifty years after the end of the war, Sandler wrote a memoir of his extraordinary experience, An Informal Family Autobiographical Memoir.

Now, more than 20 years later, his grandson, Jonathan Sandler, has produced this “graphic memoir”.

Beautifully illustrated by Brian Bicknell, The English GI tells the story of how a Jewish schoolboy from Yorkshire ended up in the US Army. The black-and-white drawings are realistic and their style captures a sense of period really well.

The book describes the experience of boot camp and then the Normandy landings in 1944 and the soldiers’ first glimpses of occupied France, serving in the Third Army under General Patton. Injured by shrapnel, he was flown back to England and was reunited at last with his family, after five years of separation.

Clearly written and researched, The English GI is really two books in one. First, there is Bernard’s account of being stranded in America and then serving in France as a GI. But the most moving part of the book is an account of the fate of his Jewish family in Latvia after the German invasion in 1941.

Bernard’s two Jewish uncles, Solomon and Louis, joined the Red Army and were killed on the Eastern Front. They were among 5,000 Latvian Jews who served in the Red Army. Almost 2,000 were killed in battle.

Solomon’s wife and her two children Isaac and Dora) were among the 800 Latvian Jews murdered at Lake Zorba outside their home town. After the war, a few surviving members of the family returned to live in Latvia.

In the 1990s, Bernard and his sister Sonia visited their last-surviving Jewish relative in Latvia.

The English GI is a powerful story. But what makes it most original is how it is told in pictures mixing maps, drawings and moving family photographs.

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