The Jewish pilots of the Battle of Britain have been largely forgotten, but now their stories are being told, as part of the RAF Museum’s Jewish Hidden Heroes project.
One of them, William Nelson, a Canadian, was shot down and killed over Folkstone in November 1940. His son, Bill, then just two months old, had no idea that his father was Jewish until more than 30 years later.
The following year, Bill’s mother moved to Canada and remarried, and Bill, now adopting the surname McAlister, grew up knowing only the barest details of his father. “In the space of a year, he met my mother, they got married, I was conceived and he was killed.”
William Nelson is believed to be the only Jewish Canadian who fought over Britain in the summer of 1940. Born in in 1917 to a working class Jewish family in Montreal, he arrived in Britain as a 19-year-old in 1936 with the dream of joining the RAF. “He wanted to fly,” says his son, “he was obsessed.”
By 1940 he was flying over Norway and Germany and with the onset of the Battle of Britain transferred into a fighter wing.
But one aspect of his father’s life was entirely forgotten. “I only found out about my Jewishness when I was thirty-seven,” says Mr McAlister, now 80, who returned to the UK with his family when he was 17 and later spent 13 years as director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
His mother “announced she had something to tell me before she died,” he remembers. Eventually — after a drink — she told him: “Your father was a Jew”.
“I was flabbergasted — it had never occurred to me. There was nothing that I knew which suggested that he was Jewish, and his name, Willie Nelson, didn’t sound at all Jewish to me.”
Willie’s parents, who had emigrated from Russia and Romania, had anglicised the surname Katznelson.
The McAlisters had decided not to tell Bill that his father was Jewish as “they had seen antisemitism in Canada” and wanted to “make me feel part of the family they were building.”
“I did want to find his sisters and I looked through the only memento that I had from him apart from medals and propaganda photos — a tiny little diary,” says Mr McAlister.
He spotted a surname, Duskey, and when he was in Canada he combed the phonebook calling every Duskey in Montreal.
“There was an Ethel Duskey,” he says. “She started to cry and said: 'I have been waiting 40 years for this. I know who you are. I am your father’s sister'.”
Ethel was William’s only living sibling and became the link that connected Bill to a new world of Jewish cousins spread across North America.
“Finding out that he was Jewish made me want to know even more about his family,” he recalls.
“I have become very close to the relatives that I have found. It has made me embrace a side of my father’s life that I was deprived of.”
His father had been one of the subject of a comic produced in Canada during the war, propaganda designed to encourage Canadians to support the war effort.
“He was something of a pin-up,” Mr McAlister says.
William is one of the subjects of the RAF Museum’s Hidden Jewish Heroes exhibition, sponsored by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, which was due to run just before lockdown, and is now online.
“I am nervous,” said Bill, “because it is a big label to call someone a Jewish hero.
“He was proud, excited and knew it was the right thing to do. He knew the risks. I don’t think he wanted to be a hero, he wanted to defeat fascism.”
But, he says, “I know so little about his character. I have no idea what his sense of humour was, for example. I miss that.”
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