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Donen LazerEditor’s note: In October last year we were contacted by Journalism Professor Ellin Bessner, who sent us a note about a project in which she was engaged:
"Hello!
"I am a Toronto researcher and professor of journalism at Centennial College. I am currently writing a book about the Canadian Jews who were killed during the Second World War.

I have not been able to find anyone yet who knew Israel Freedman, or Yude Brownstone, and wonder if you could publicize my request?
Both are buried in Normandy.
Freedman’s father was a butcher, Peter. His mother was Molly.
Many thanks for any help you may be able to give me on this matter.
Sincerely,
Ellin Bessner
Centennial College Journalism Professor
(Toronto)
A few weeks later, we received another note from Ellin:
It’s Ellin here in Toronto. It was nice chatting with you the other week before I headed to Winnipeg for research about the 450 Canadian Jewish servicemen who were killed during the Second World War.
I wanted to thank you for running the note about me looking for people who knew Freedman and Brownstone.
I got a half dozen telephone calls and emails from relatives and cousins and in one case, his sister!!
So I have really hit the jackpot, and it is thanks to your help.
I’ve done some interviewing, and have two more to do. Can’t thank you enough!
Let’s stay in touch as I now have found 61 Jewish servicemen from Manitoba who were killed in the Second World War – including those with last names that you will recognize Slotin, Simkin, Brownstone, Marantz, Foster, Cohen, Niznick, Paul, Sheps, Shnier...etc
Then, a little more than a month ago, Bessner contacted us again, this time with news about another discovery she had made that also had a Winnipeg connection. Following is the story of that discovery:
By ELLIN BESSNER
More than 70 years after a Winnipeg navigator with the RCAF was killed in action in the Second World War, his family in Canada has just received a precious record of his service that they never knew existed.
Officials at the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa recently sent the flight logbook belonging to Warrant Officer Second Class Samuel Jacob Donen to one of his nephews, Larry Donen, a former Winnipegger now living in British Columbia. I discovered the logbook on the eve of Remembrance Day last November while reading through the dead airman’s military service records in Ottawa. I was doing research for my book about Jewish Canadians who served in the Second World War. The logbook had been undisturbed in the files since 1948.
“It was quite something,” said Larry Donen, a marketing executive whose father Norman was Sam’s younger brother. “It’s in great condition for something as old. The pages are yellowed [but otherwise] it’s perfect.”
The story of how Larry Donen and his three siblings came to be reunited with the artefact begins in wartime Winnipeg in 1939. Sam Donen had finished Grade 11 at the Isaac Newton school, and was managing the men’s department at Oretski’s Department Store at the time.
Sam applied to join the RCAF and told the recruiting officers he wanted to be an Observer, as he had always had an interest in aviation: he also hoped to be a meteorologist after the war. Sam did well in his first training course, earning an 89 per cent mark in his first report card in 1941.
Eventually Sam was attached to the Royal Air Force’s Transport (Ferry) Command, based in Dorval, outside of Montreal. The unit operated in secret but served an essential role in the Allied victory over the Germans: Its air crews made dangerous transatlantic flights from air force bases in North and South America and the Caribbean, to bases in Europe, West Africa and the Middle East, delivering newly-built American bombers ,also ammunition and supplies.
Sam Donen recorded all his flights, including the types of aircraft, the personnel, flying time, and the destination, beginning from his earliest days in training to his fateful last trip in 1943. Reading through it helped Larry Donen fill in the blanks of the story that his father never talked about.
“There was a bit of a Harry Potter area beneath the stairs that was locked up and every once in a while Shane [Donen] and I would crawl in there and that’s where my dad kept his memories of Sammy and there was a kind of a small, army strong box and it had some of his medals and it has his sergeant’s stripes and we used to look at it,” Larry recalled.
From Dorval, his uncle was eventually transferred to Nassau, in the Bahamas with 113 Wing of No. 45 RAF Air Transport Command: he flew on all kinds of aircraft including Hudsons and Lancaster bombers, and Dakotas. His transatlantic journeys kept him in the air up to 12 hours at a stretch, and brought him down through Puerto Rico to Brazil, across to Ascension Island, and on to the final destinations in Bathurst (now Banjul) in Gambia, or Accra, in Ghana.
It was common practice for airmen to leave the logbook behind in their locker when they went on each mission, explained Paul Marsden, senior military archivist at Library and Archives Canada headquarters in Ottawa.
Sam Donen would complete seven transatlantic missions before a mysterious crash outside of Accra, Ghana on Sept. 7, 1943 killed him and nine other crewmen on board the giant American Liberator transport. It crashed into the jungle about a minute after takeoff. Donen and his tired crewmates were not working; they were passengers. The ten are buried at the Christiansborg War Cemetery in Accra. Donen was 24.
Although the government would send back Sam’s flying goggles and a few other personal effects, including an African knife and a bullet, the logbook went missing.
Documents in his military file show that the RCAF did try to deliver the logbook to Winnipeg in January 1948 at the family’s Luxton Avenue address, which their son had listed in his original attestation form. Unfortunately, the family had long since moved to 54 McAdam Street; Jacob Donen had even notified the military of his new address in 1944.
The logbook was returned to Ottawa and placed in Donen’s file, where it remained for 67 years. When I found it on November 10, 2015, I sent a note to Larry Donen’s sister, Maylene Ludwig, who lives in Winnipeg. The family soon wrote Ottawa to asked for it back. Library and Archives Canada was happy to oblige.
“If this man or woman had survived the war they would have carried it home,” said archivist Marsden. “It would’ve been part of their family’s legacy so by restoring it at this point we’re just kind of fulfilling the natural order of things.”
Happy endings like this have been rare since the Archives opened the 44,000 Second World War casualty files to the public about ten years ago: just four or five items per year are restored to the next of kin.
One family received a baby’s ring, found around the neck of a sailor’s body after his ship had been torpedoed; in another case, the ashes of a Canadian man who died in the war were retrieved from the files and buried in an Ottawa military cemetery.
Marsden said the Donens shouldn’t feel they were singled out for the vagaries of wartime bureaucratic paper shuffling: even the family of Lieutenant Colonel (Dr.) John McCrae, who wrote the famous poem “In Flanders Fields” during the First World War, had a similar experience. After the war, Marsden said, the post office delivered McCrae’s memorial plaque known as the “Dead Man’s Penny” to the wrong house in Guelph, and didn’t try harder to find the by-then well known family in the small town. They would obtain their son’s plaque only in the 1940s.
“The bureaucracy went ‘Well, we’ll just put it on the file and forget about it’,” Marsden explained, saying these cases were very common. “At the time when you see how many people and how much paper is flowing back and forth, you have….some understanding” of how precious family treasures wound up in the government’s archives.
Over the years, the Donen family has been commemorating the life and legacy of their uncle in their own ways, be it through naming children and grandchildren after him, or telling his story at Remembrance Day ceremonies in high school. Maylene’s daughter Sidura Ludwig wrote a novel in 2007 Holding My Breath about growing up in Winnipeg with a missing airman uncle. Larry’s daughter Leah wrote a song and assembled a video about him. Larry Donen says having the logbook back with the initials S.J Donen printed on the side has had a surprisingly powerful impact on him.
“He writes Donen the same way I do when I print it,” Larry marveled. “It’s just these little [things], you know? The prints are over this. There’s something very special about it.”

 

Ed. note: As a sequel to the story by Ellin Bessner, we were also contacted by Tammy Lazer, who lost her older brother, Hymie Steinberg, in WWII. Tammy, by the way, is a sister of famed comedian David Steinberg.
By TAMMY LAZER
Some things you never get over. People tell you  you should move on. They’re trying to be helpful. And they are. Things happen and you have to move on. So you do. But still, some things you never get over.
That’s how it was when I got a phone call in September 2015 from Ellen Bessner, a journalist researching abook about Jewish personnel serving in the Canadian Armed Forces in World War II.
My older brother, Hymie Steinberg, was 19 years old, the youngest pilot officer serving in the Canadian Armed Forces when he was killed in a flight accident on December 19, 1944. On a patrol out of Reykjavik, Iceland, after a day-long mission to protect Allied troop ships from German naval attacks, his aircraft crashed on its return approach to base.
I was 14. Ellen’s phone call yanked me right back to that day. The devastating telegram. The loss. The grief. The pain. There were no details. And to protect my mother, my father didn’t want them.
Seventy-two years later, Ellen had the details. She had done the research. My brother’s flight had left before dawn, and now they were returning after dusk. The crew was exhausted. To save 45 minutes, they took a landing approach that was absolutely forbidden. The pilot knew it. Everybody on the flight knew it. But they would save 45 minutes and get back in time to see the comics from back home who had been brought out to entertain the troops. They didn’t make it.
Now I have the details. Have they given me any closure?
The quantum physicists say that time doesn’t flow. Events always exist. Things that happen have always happened and always will happen. Sounds crazy. It’s hard to make sense out of. Until all of a sudden, something from the past pops up in the present, and it’s as real as it ever was.
Some things you never get over.

 

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