A swirl of scarlet and a skirl of the trumpet; a forest of military standards and a virtual garden of poppied wreaths, laid with great tenderness and solemnity at the Cenotaph. Pin-sharp creases in the uniforms, pin-sharp precision in the marching.
Wheelchairs pivoted at the head of the columns, and a great burst of youthful enthusiasm from the Jewish scouts and the band of the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade brought up the rear. The last bowler hats in captivity made their annual appearance. The glowing sapphire of the robes of the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, the glamorous grey of the greatcoats and shakos of the RAF band, and the crimson cloaks of the JLGB musicians, provided a searing visual feast against a background of a gloriously crisp winter day, with bright blue skies and even a hint of sunshine.
This was the 75th parade of remembrance held by Ajex, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. Old soldiers and current service personnel, delegations from all over Britain, ex-members of the American Legion and the French Resistance, pinned on their medals and marched down Whitehall from Horseguards Parade towards the Cenotaph. And, mindful of the deaths of so many British servicemen in current conflicts, and of the certain knowledge that such parades cannot continue much longer in their present form, the turnout was huge.
Spectators — many tourists hoping for a brief glimpse of Downing Street — huddled instead on the steps of the government buildings which flank Whitehall, and burst into spontaneous applause as the hundreds of marchers arrived at the Cenotaph.
There were men in their eighties, such as Manchester’s Bernard Goldman, 89, who served as a signaller in North Africa, Italy, Palestine and Egypt; and much younger men, such as David Fineberg and Murray Davidson, of Ilford, both of whom, like many on the parade, were there to represent their late fathers, and were proudly displaying Norman Fineberg and Myron Davidson’s hard-won medals.
Frank Ashleigh, from Kingsbury, was a glider pilot who fought at Arnhem, and sported a medal bestowed by the Dutch government; and the family of Lieutenant Paul Mervis, who died this summer while serving in Afghanistan, laid a wreath in the name of the Armed Forces Jewish Community.
Five children laid poppy posies in honour of their relatives killed on active service in the First and Second World Wars; a wreath was dedicated on behalf of the youth contingent; and Gideon Fiegel and Colonel Alex Zielony laid a wreath for the Jewish Brigade, on behalf of the International Council of Jewish War Veterans.
As the parade passed in front of the reviewing officer, Brigadier (ret’d) Allan Julius, the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the British army in recent years, one man asked his neighbour: “Why does Ajex have a separate parade?” Because, said the neighbour on one side, the national commemoration is a Christian service. But the neighbour on the other side added: “People need to know, now more than ever, that Jewish boys and girls fought for King and country. And that they continue to do so for Queen and country.”
Big Ben struck three and the community bowed its head: the thoughts of everyone, old and young, the chaplains, the rabbis, the Israeli ambassador, the community leaders and Ajex president Lord Janner, flew to those who “willingly offered themselves in the service of the Crown”.
Those present, the survivors, the families, the servicemen and women and the ex-servicemen and women, were united for a brief moment, and the rare sound of kaddish floated up Whitehall, as tears fell. And then, almost incongruously, the RAF Band struck up Adon Olam.
Some stories from the front lines
Ralph “Spike” Harris is an energetic 90-year-old with cherubic features and a wicked grin. In 1945 he was mentioned in dispatches for distinguished service while serving in the Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort’s Own.)
Mr Harris, who finished his wartime service as a sergeant, was the closest of friends with four others. It was a visit to a house in Stamford Hill’s Amhurst Park, “to greet the children from the Kinder trains”, which determined the five friends to join up in May 1939, Mr Harris starting out with the Territorials.
He was shipped out initially to Algiers, in north Africa, “to get to Tunis before the Germans arrived from the Western Desert”. His company commander, he says, “wasn’t in love with Jews. He was heard to say at a meeting, ‘Harris is far too intelligent to be in the ranks, even if he is a Jew.’ So I was fighting the German army, and him.”
Mr Harris finished his war in Italy. “I was a good soldier,” he says. “I was very lucky to come home intact.”
As for Ajex, he says: “I will always go to the parades. It is a way for me to say goodbye to my friends.”
David Arkush, at 90, has an astonishing recall of dates and places. He is a former dentist commissioned as a captain in the Dental Corps. Sent to Singapore in 1941, he was captured by the Japanese on February 15, 1942, and spent three and a half years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
Mr Arkush has vivid memories of his time in captivity. “Out of about 1500 men, I found 10 Jewish soldiers and one other Jewish officer besides myself. Since my father was a chazan in Britain — in Blackpool — I wanted to keep up some Yiddishkeit. I had a Boots diary which recorded Jewish holidays for a couple of years. I held services with my minyan every Shabbat, and we worked out from the diary when Rosh Hashanah was.”
Towards the end of the war — Japan was not formally defeated until August 1945 — the camp was broken up. Six of the Jewish soldiers, suffering from malaria, were taken to hospital and it was the repatriation of one of them to Manchester which first alerted the Arkush family to the possibility of David returning home.
The memories are clear. That is why a 90-year-old marches with Ajex.
“I was 20 years old when I volunteered for the Jewish Brigade.” Rabbi Harry Jacobi, 83, a veteran of several Progressive congregations, was enjoying a well-deserved cup of tea after taking part in the Remembrance service at the Cenotaph. “Exactly 70 years ago I escaped first from Berlin, and then from Holland, on the last boat of refugee children to enter Britain.”
The gently-spoken Liberal rabbi serves as a chaplain to the armed forces, together with his colleague, Ajex chaplain, the Rev Malcolm Weisman and the newly-appointed Rabbi Arnold Saunders, the first full-time civilian Jewish chaplain to HM Forces. Rabbi Jacobi, who spent the war years in Manchester, served in Belgium, Holland and Germany while in the British Army of the Rhine, and was not finally discharged until 1948.
His daughter, Margaret, is rabbi at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue and his son, Richard, has just become minister at Woodford Liberal Synagogue.
“I used to march with Ajex for many years. Now, I think it’s more important than ever that we turn out in numbers to show our contribution.”