Until the day she died, the picture of my mother’s beloved brother Herman never left her bedside. There he was, handsome and resplendent in his British army uniform. While many of his family died in the Holocaust, my Uncle Herman died fighting for His Majesty the King as a member of the British army. We never knew Herman but he was always an integral part of our lives. My mother never stopped talking about him.
He had left Sosnowitz (Sosnowiec), Poland, before the war and traveled the world. We had heard that he settled in Manchester, England, married, had a child and opened a toy factory. And then for some reason, he decided to join the British army and died while fighting. There the story ended.
I had made a number of attempts to find out when and how he died and where he was buried, requesting whatever information the British War Office had on a soldier named Herman Bornstein. Each time the response was the same: no information. So I assumed he was one of the many unknown soldiers.
Some years went by and my mother died never knowing whatever happened to her brother. After she passed away, my cousin Regina and I paid a visit to my mother’s sister, Blanche, who lived in Los Angeles. We took her out for dinner and for some reason I decided to ask her a question I’d asked her before – “Auntie, can you remember anything about what happened to your brother Herman?” I expected the usual reply: “Sorry Alfie, I told you before, I don’t know.”
“Vell, now that you mention it, I recall that he didn’t use the name Herman,” Blanche said.
I stopped eating and looked up.
“What name did he use?” I asked
“Vell, I think he used the name Henry,” Blanche offered.
“What else do you remember Auntie?”
“Vell, I remember now that he didn’t use the name Bornstein. I think he used the name Born. And I remember that he died near the end of the war near a bridge.”
Regina and I looked at each other in disbelief.
That was all Blanche remembered – but it was enough. As soon as I arrived home, I sent another letter to the British War Office, this time giving the name “Henry” and as many different spellings of “Born” as I could configure. And said that he died near the end of the war near a bridge. I expected to receive the same response I had received years before – sorry, no record.
Some months later I arrived home to find a large manila envelope with the return address “On Her Majesty’s Service.” My hands shook as I opened it. Inside was my uncle’s entire war record: the day he enlisted, the regiment he joined – the Royal Welsh Fusiliers – and the day he was killed, March 1, 1945. Also included was the layout of the cemetery where he was buried and a red circle around his grave. My Uncle Herman was buried as Henry Boren in the Reichswald Forest Commonwealth War Cemetery near Kleve, Germany, very close to the Dutch border.
I immediately called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission office in Ottawa, which confirmed within what seems like only seconds that, yes, there was my uncle’s grave, number 50.10.15 in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery.
The next question was, how was his grave marked? A few days later, the office called to advise that my uncle’s grave was marked with a cross. I responded that my uncle was Jewish, but upon further investigation, the office told me that my uncle was in fact registered as a Catholic. This, as it turns out, was not uncommon with Jewish soldiers as their religion was listed on their dog tags and they were concerned that if captured, they would suffer a worse fate if their true religion was known.
I also phoned the headquarters of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers at Caernarfon Castle in Caernarfon, Wales, where my Uncle Henry Boren was listed on the Honour Role. I was invited to visit, and in July 1997, my wife and I did just that. We learned that my uncle was killed during the British Army’s drive through the Reichswald Forest toward Berlin.
Our next stop was the British Records Office where we were able to find the record of my uncle’s marriage and the birth of a daughter. The records showed that he was married not in a church but by a Justice of the Peace at the Municipal Hall in a town not far from Manchester. That told me that he probably had not converted to Catholicism. Herman’s wife never applied for her widow’s pension.
Then we flew to Amsterdam, an hour’s drive from the cemetery, just across the border in Germany. The Reichswald Forest Commonwealth War Cemetery contains approximately 7,500 Commonwealth graves – a significant number being Canadian. We went to my uncle’s grave. He was buried with his comrades from the same regiment. I noticed immediately my uncle’s age compared to that on the other stones. Most of the fallen were in their late-teens or early-20s; my uncle was 36. I placed a picture of my mother beside the stone and said Kaddish.