British Jews in the Merchant Navy in WWII

There are many ways to fight a war. And there are many ways to depict it after hostilities have ceased.

Popular culture tends to focus on the battlefield whether on the ground, in the air or at sea. Yet many gave their lives to defeat Nazism in areas that succeeding generations have tended to gloss over. The Merchant Navy symbolically kept the home fires burning and prevented isolation – and its dire consequences. It is believed that up to 185,000 men and women served in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Almost a fifth lost their lives on the high seas while 24,000 have no known grave except the cold waters of the world’s oceans.

The first Merchant Navy casualties occurred within hours of war being declared on 3 September 1939 when a German U-boat attacked the SS Athena. The civilians on board were machine-gunned in the water. It set the scene for the rest of the war.

The Merchant Navy was traditionally international with many of the men and women coming from different ethnic and national groups. Japanese seamen served alongside their British compatriots until Pearl Harbour brought Japan into the war. Many Europeans whose countries had been occupied by the Nazis served in the Merchant Navy as part of the fight to liberate their homeland. Jews had more than enough reason to stand up to the Nazis. As British citizens, it was a matter of freedom. As British Jews, it was a matter of life and death.

Like those who fought in the International Brigades in Spain against Franco, Jews who served in the Merchant Navy are considered part and parcel of the national group. British Jews who served their country in the Merchant Navy however had an additional and distinctive reason to fight for freedom. If Operation Sea Lion had gone ahead in 1940 and Hitler’s invasion of the British Isles been successful, there is no doubt that the Nazis would have separated British Jews from their non-Jewish fellow citizens.

Many of these British Jews were born just after the end of the First World War when the sentiment was to build a land fit for heroes after the slaughter of trench warfare. The interwar reality was somewhat different. British Jews were discriminated against and impoverished. Indeed so many British Jews anglicised their names in an attempt to become invisible and to avoid anti-Semitism. It has clearly made the task of contemporary researchers such as Martin Sugarman that more difficult. It is to his credit that he has overcome this obstacle in many cases and reclaimed the acts of so many individuals from the mists of time.

Jack Blonder, a cook on the SS Cape Corso, changed his name from ‘Cohen’. His ship was part of the PQ15 convoy to Murmansk in the USSR. It was sunk by a Heinkel torpedo bomber in May 1942. Blonder-Cohen was killed along with many of his shipmates.

The three Isbitsky brothers – David, Eddie and Sidney – changed their surname to ‘Isbey’. All served in the Merchant Navy. Like many, they had grown up in London’s East End. They too knew what they were fighting for, having stood at the barricades against Mosley and the British Union of Fascists in the Battle of Cable Street.

Like the second generation of other immigrant groups, many of these British Jews distanced themselves from the past. Yet it was not just Hitler that jogged their collective memory. When Jack Aptaker signed on for the Merchant Navy, he was asked which religion he belonged to. A surprised Aptaker replied ‘Jewish’. The official authoritatively told him that in the Navy there were only two religions – Church of England and Roman Catholic. He was later taunted by cries of ‘why don’t you go back to Palestine?’

Aptaker saw the full horror of war during the conflict. In the Far East he witnessed the newly liberated British prisoners of Singapore’s Changi prison. The food was rationed to one slice of bread by their liberators since it was unsure how these walking skeletons would cope with more. Aptaker’s growing awareness of his Jewishness and his fear for a repetition of atrocities led him to volunteer to serve in the Palmach during Israel’s war of independence. Unlike his time in the Merchant Navy, Aptaker was injured by a land mine in the Negev and wounded by a sniper.

The barrier between life and death could be remarkably thin. Alec Pressman who had rescued men from the shores of Dunkirk in 1940 saw many of his ships go down – and miraculously survived. On one occasion, his family was erroneously informed that he had drowned and his wife therefore started to sit shiva (Jewish mourning period) for her husband. Pressman magically appeared to attend the ceremony in person.

Some Jews who served in the Merchant Navy were escapees from Nazism. Charles Schaja Stenham belonged to Zionist youth groups in Leipzig and Dresden and left in July 1936 for kibbutz Degania (aleph) in Israel. He served on the MV Verbania and visited Jewish internees in Mauritius – they were refugees from the Patria, blown up in Haifa harbour, after the British had refused to allow them into Palestine.

Prisoner 82512, his number tattooed on his arm, served as a doctor at Auschwitz where the Nazis needed his medical expertise. Before the war, he was Dr Karel Sperber from Czechoslovakia. Escaping the Nazis in 1939, he joined the Merchant Navy as the ship’s purser on the SS Automedon. It was sunk and Sperber eventually found himself in German internment camps and operating under the most primitive of conditions. He was credited with saving the lives of thousands of British prisoners when a typhus epidemic broke out in Stalag XB in the summer of 1941. He survived Auschwitz and was awarded the OBE in 1946 for his services as a POW doctor.

Merchant shipman Captain Moshe Abramski of Palestine received the MBE for his gallantry in unloading fuel and ammunition from his ship under Stuka fire while docked in Tobruk. And there are many more remarkable stories of heroism amidst death and destruction in this exceptional book. Martin Sugarman has once again dedicated himself to reclaiming a marginalised area of Jewish history. This work and those that preceded it create an accessible record for today’s reading public and those in the future.

Those whose journeys through the horrors of the Second World War are recorded in this book waved their collective fist at Hitler. Many paid with their lives. Primo Levi reminded us that those today ‘who live secure in your warm house’ have an obligation to recall what happened so long ago and to pass these stories on to those who come after us. This is why this book is so important.

Foreword to Martin Sugarman’s Jews in the Merchant Navy in World War II

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