The IJC performed its duty and paid a debt to the larger Jewish Community on Friday April 28th in a ceremony at the British War Cemetery at Heverlee, near Leuven. It was for a Jewish World War II UK airman, Sidney Smith, who died very close to the end of the War.
While flying a mission in a Lancaster bomber on March 5, 1945, the plane crashed outside Leuven (in Glabbeek). None of the seven crew members survived. The force of the crash was so strong that neither Sidney's body nor those of the other crew members could be found. Only in 2016 was the body of the plane located deep under a field by an amateur Belgian recovery team. They excavated the plane and the remains around November 11, 2016. The team put out a notice on the Internet of the discovery and the names of all seven crew members, hoping to elicit responses from the next of kin.
The family of Sidney Smith took notice and set about trying to locate the families of the other crew members. Their idea was for the bodies to be buried together in the nearest British war cemetery in an ecumenical ceremony attended by all families. It was in this context that Jeff Temple, Sidney's relative contacted the IJC - as the English-speaking Progressive Synagogue in Belgium - and asked if we could be present at the ceremony and say a few prayers. The IJC told the family it would be an honour. Brian Doyle, Anneke Silverstein and I joined the ceremony in the name of the IJC and the larger Jewish Community.
Who was Sidney? He was raised in a Jewish orphanage in London with his older sister. He volunteered for the RAF. When he died, he was only 21 years old. His older sister acted as a mother to him in the orphanage and their bonds were very close. When Sidney died, it was his sister who kept his memory very much alive, particularly in the minds of her children. She gathered all his belongings. This included Sydney's personal Jewish prayer book issued to British Jewish servicemen. Sydney had told his sister that its pages had given him much comfort.
Over the years, the family would make pilgrimages to Belgium to honour Sidney but there was no grave to visit. Thus, when the news came from the Belgian recovery team that Sidney's remains had been located, the family was very eager for a proper burial with full honours. They also noted that the crew of Lancaster bomber NN775 represented different religions and races, one crew member came from Jamaica. The crew embodied what the UK had been fighting for in the war against Nazi Germany. The family decided that the best way to honour Sidney would be to have all families present at a special ceremony in Heverlee. It is to the credit of Sidney's devoted nephew, Jeff Temple, that they were all located and convinced to come - and that the ceremony was organised.
April 28th was grey and very cold, but the rain held off for the duration of the ceremony. The families of the crew members gathered around the seven headstones along with representatives of the British and UK military, the British Ambassador and Belgian veteran organisations. The forty-minute ceremony consisted of poems and prayers, wreath-laying, a bugle sounding The Last Post and a bagpiper playing a dirge. Brian read the Twenty-Third Psalm and then took out Sidney's personal copy of a Jewish prayer book and read "The Wisdom of Salomon": "The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They are in peace. Their hope is full of immortality". We closed the ceremony with a reading of the Kaddish.
Sidney Smith and his fellow crew members have been remembered in a noble ceremony and now rest in peace - together - in a corner of Belgium that will always be England.