Haifa man crusades for British hero's grave

English railway official Sykes headstone was stolen.

By JOSHUA FREEDMAN
July 22, 2010 06:37
3 minute read.
MICHAEL GOTTSCHALK stands at the gravesite of George R. Hughenden Sykes, whose headstone was apparen

Sykes grave 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Due to one Haifa man’s persistence, the disturbing neglect of a British railway official’s grave has been brought to light.

Michael Gottschalk, a native of London who moved to Haifa within months of his birth in 1936 and has lived there since, discovered the story of George R. Hughenden Sykes by chance.

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In January 2009, while helping to locate the graves of two Italian soldiers killed in the Haifa Bay area during World War II, Gottschalk stumbled across the city’s Jaffa Road cemetery, which contained Sykes’s grave.

Once inside, Gottschalk was shocked to discover that Sykes’s metal headstone had been stolen, and speculated that it had been sold for scrap metal.

Gottschalk then spoke with several history experts in the Haifa area and discovered that Sykes had for a time been the superintendent of the Palestine Railway in the city during the British Mandate. He was stoned to death in his car on August 23, 1929, during the Arab riots, while out for a drive with his wife. His wife was saved from death by members of the Hagana.

A New York Times article written after his death reported that he had been part of a British convoy sent to the settlement of Kastina – modern-day Be’er Tuviya – to help Jewish settlers ward off rioters. In response to Sykes’s death, the British sent a warship to Palestine, the SS Barham, filled with a large contingent of marines to quell the riots.

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Since his discovery, Gottschalk has personally taken it upon himself to ensure that Sykes’s grave receives a new headstone, which is expected to cost around NIS 3,600.

Gottschalk thought the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would bear responsibility for Sykes’s grave. The Jaffa Road cemetery is listed on its Web site, which states under “historical information” that “Haifa (Jaffa Road) Cemetery contains 36 non-war burials in the care of CWGC.”

However, Gottschalk said the CWGC had rebuffed all of his attempts to get the commission’s help, telling him when he contacted it last month that “this casualty is not our responsibility.”

The British Embassy in Tel Aviv, Gottschalk said, was equally unhelpful, telling him, “I find your perseverance admirable and wholeheartedly support your efforts. As you might imagine, we get many enquiries on military historical matters and the like, but sadly we are simply not resourced or funded to sort out every one of them.”

Gottschalk was also disappointed by Israel’s failure to honor the British Christians buried in the country.

“The [Religious Affairs Ministry] only looks after Jewish graveyards, never British or Arab graveyards. When a Jewish graveyard in Europe is violated, the press goes out with pictures and protests to the government responsible in Europe,” he told The Jerusalem Post last week.

“Why should we not try to protect the Christian British graveyards?” He has also tried to locate relatives of Sykes, but has been unable to link him to anyone specific since his last name is so common.

Explaining his interest in Sykes, Gottschalk recounted, “We, at school, always thought that the British were all bad fellows.”

However, he then “discovered that many gave their life for this country.”

Gottschalk also believes Israel should have some sort of memorial day for the soldiers who liberated the country from Turkish rule. The Israeli public could then be taught facts about the British that “have been overlooked,” he said.

Despite his failure to raise funds for Sykes’s grave, and saddened by the “cold shoulder” he has received, Gottschalk is optimistic that further dissemination of Sykes’s story will help garner interest in replacing this hero’s missing headstone.

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