Obituary: Ivan Solomons

“Lucky” D-Day veteran – a “shoe-in“ for highest French military accolade


One of the handful of surviving veterans of the D-Day landings, Ivan Solomons, who has died aged 98, served in the Second World War with his three brothers, all of whom fortunately made it safely home. As one of the Few he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 2017.

A sergeant in the Royal Horse Artillery during the campaign, the former shoemaker from Hackney told journalists, with a modesty typical of him, that there was nothing special about him and his medal belonged to his fallen comrades. He was representing “the crowd I served with”.

He described those memories at the time as still very alive within him: “they’re like little videos you play and relive the whole thing. I’m very lucky for my age – I’m pretty fit and I don’t think I’ve gone bonkers – my stepson keeps me in line”.

The Legion d’Honneur is normally reserved for French citizens, but recognises acts of the utmost bravery. Since 2014, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, it has been awarded to Second World War veterans for the service they paid to France.

Born and raised in Hackney in 1920s Britain, Solomons was the youngest of the seven children of Jewish immigrant parents who ran a shoemaking business. In an interview he gave in 2020 for a family photo book at his home in west London, he described what it was like to survive, return home and build a “very lucky life”.

The world of shoemaking was his life when growing up and after leaving the army he and his brothers continued working in the family business, eventually inheriting their father’s East End shoe factory.

“My father originally came to England from Russia as (part of) a young Jewish family. In those days there were a lot of immigrants from Russia and Poland. And you’re either a tailor or a furniture maker or a shoemaker. And my dad’s family were all shoemakers. They all came from little villages in Russia, they were the shoemakers in the village.

“So my dad went to a guy who was making shoes in Hackney or somewhere in the East End. And he did that for a while, before setting up himself, so he found a room somewhere to sleep in at night and use as a shoe factory during the day. My dad built it up into a big factory so when I left the army I worked for the family business, along with my brothers. So I got to be a shoe sales (person). I’ve got a big mouth anyway!”

After attending boarding school in Cambridge he went straight into the army, aged 17, and considered himself lucky to have come through it. “I met a lot of people who became my life-long friends. If they are alive, they are still my friends. And I had a very interesting life in a big family”.

One of his four brothers died very young, but all the rest were in the forces – one a gunner, one a driver, and another, the second eldest, also fought at Dunkirk. “He came back via Dunkirk and I was there on D-Day as the war finished,” Solomons recalled. But it took time to adjust to living back in London after the war.

“You were aware of it all the time, it’s something you had to work out a bit but it was such a relief. Talking to people who had been in it with you, because a lot of people can’t understand it, can’t imagine it. You tended to merge with people who had similar experiences, so they understood, which is very difficult to explain… the long, long days of boredom and not doing anything. And I didn’t want to forget it, I wanted to be aware of it and remember it and value it. Which I did”.

Solomons anticipated that returning would be a very difficult time, “changing from wartime to peacetime, because all the values had changed, everybody’s desires changed, people became different. People began to look and think of their future. Where are we going? What’s going to happen? Because you could see you had a future. I think we were lucky that we came through as we did”.

He married twice, but had no children. He spoke of feeling nervous about raising a family of his own and admitted that he really did not want the responsibility, having had enough responsibility in his life so far.

His second wife Wendy had a son from her first marriage. He is now a Cambridge professor, and Solomons spoke of him with great pride.

“He treats me like a dad because I’ve known him since he was born”. Asked during the 2020 interview what happiness meant to him, he considered that it meant watching people help each other. “The goodness of people”, as he described it. “There is a lot of goodness around. Be understanding, be content”.

Claudia Zeff, a close friend, whose children recently filmed him talking about his life, said: “His memory was really sharp almost till the end. He was a most loving, joyful man. He adored children and young people – my children have loved him all their lives. Even in his 90s he wanted to know what they were up to and how their lives were going. …if he liked the look of your shoes he would ask you to take them off so he could examine how well or not they’d been made. He had incredible joie de vivre and warmth – he’d hug you, whatever your age or sex, until it hurt!”

Both his wives, first Irene and then Wendy, predeceased him.

Ivan Solomons: born September 22, 1923. Died April 7

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