Meet the woman memorializing, honoring fallen Jewish WWII pilots

Her aim was to record and honor the memories of those Jewish air force servicemen and women who gave their lives for their country.

Alfred Harris; Flight Engineer, 106 Squadron. He died at the age of 24 on November 1, 1944; Buried Bergen-Op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alfred Harris; Flight Engineer, 106 Squadron. He died at the age of 24 on November 1, 1944; Buried Bergen-Op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Anyone who has visited the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem will have been impressed by the range of non-Jewish men and women who have assisted, spoken up for and even helped to defend Israel and the Jewish people in recent history. Why would they do this? What could have motivated them? This was one of the first questions that I asked Cathie Hewitt, a woman who has devoted the last few years of her life to memorializing and honoring many forgotten Royal Air Force Jewish servicemen and women who lost their lives during the Second World War. I was introduced to Cathie by my wife Annie. She and Cathie met through their voluntary work in researching the data of deceased Jewish soldiers. We first became acquainted with the vivacious blonde haired blue eyed Cathie when she and her husband Philip and their two children visited Jerusalem last winter.
Cathie was born to a Scottish father and an English mother in Falkirk, Scotland. She was one of two daughters. At a very young age the McDougall family moved south to North London where Cathy was raised and educated.
“I started nursing in 1980 and was a nurse on and off for over 25 years” Cathie told me in a recent Zoom interview. “I specialized in Accident and Emergency before moving on to Palliative Care. I then worked for a while as a nurse counsellor in insurance medical claims assessment.” I asked her how she got involved in tracing the biographical details of fallen Jewish soldiers.
 “I was always interested in genealogy,” she told me. “I started tracing my husband Phil’s family and did their family tree which goes back to around the year 1150. Then I started doing other peoples’ family trees. I got hooked on genealogy. And so I decided to do a master’s degree on the subject and two years ago I started working at RAF Bomber Command in my home city of Lincoln as an archivist. One day a lovely Jewish family paid us a visit. They were looking for information about their relative Norman Gorfunkel whose records we found. They then asked me how many other Jewish names appeared in the records. I told them that I didn’t know. I started to look into it and discovered that there were hundreds more. It was at that point that I decided this would be the perfect topic for my MA dissertation. I realized that I would be able to gather quite a lot of genealogical information by first looking at the names that appeared on headstones and memorials of those that were killed during World War Two. I started researching this and then it got bigger and bigger until I realized that this is what I wanted to do. All in all I worked at the archive as a volunteer for two years and then I signed on for another two years as a paid employee. I got so busy on my research that I decided to stop working on my degree so that I could devote myself fully to this project. Eventually I made the decision to give up my job at the archives so that I could spend all of my time on this project.”
Cathie then got hold of Henry Morris’s book We Will Remember Them, which lists all the Jewish personnel that served in every service during WWII. She then contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and they sent her a digital list of those personnel who had a Magen David on their headstones. “So that part was easy!” Cathie told me. “I then added those names to my own database along with the names in Morris’ book. Then I started to look at the names on Runnymede.” She painstakingly went through all the names and cross checked these with the names of those who are recorded at the Runnymede Airforce Memorial in Surrey, England. This memorial commemorates the 20,276 men and women who served in the RAF and who lost their lives. Many of these air force personnel died with no discernible burial place because of how they died, for example: being shot down or because they went missing in action. As a consequence they had no marked graves and therefore no headstones. To date she has found the names of 91 Jewish servicemen on the Runnymede data base. She also made contact with Martin Sugarman, a research archivist with AJEX (Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen) who has written a number of books on Jewish servicemen who fought and died for their country. She then began to compile a data base of Jewish servicemen and women who served in the RAF. Part of her intention was to rewrite and revise Henry Morris’s book which seemed to have many errors in it.
Cathie eventually decided to set up a website she funded from her own personal finances. “The family helped out too.” She laughed. “A fair bit came from Christmas and birthday presents.” Setting up the website prompted Cathie to keep going with her project. “I decided to put all the names that I’d found on the website. I was amazed by the reaction I got. I began receiving emails from families from all over the country and even further afield, people wanting to know more. This might even have been one of the few benefits of the pandemic. People were in lockdown and had more time to sit down at home and do their research. The response has been quite phenomenal with more and more people contacting me to share their stories, many of which are shared on the website.”
Her aim was to record and honor the memories of those Jewish air force servicemen and women who gave their lives for their country.
WHEN ASKED about the purpose of the well designed and constructed website Cathie explained:
 “Its aim is to record the biographies of the deceased, detailing their backgrounds, schooling, jobs and family life before they perished. Information about the cause of death and their final resting place is still being added as the research continues.”
Her website states:
“The website is an archive of the personnel who died serving in the many RAF commands including Fighter, Transport, Bomber, Coastal, Far East, Ferry and Middle East. Included are ground crew, WAAF’s, air crew, support crew and Special Operations Executive personnel.
These men and women are buried and commemorated all around the world including Burma, Canada, India, Sicily, Greece, Malta, Alamein, Malaysia and the UK. Their deaths include those who died through enemy action, accidents, bombing raids, illness and in prisoner of war camps.”
To date Cathie has recorded the details of 670 servicemen. She has also created over 700 family trees. I asked her if there were any women amongst those that she had found.
“Yes,” she told me proudly. “There were at least 20 women that I have found so far. Some of them were in MI9, including SOE member Hannah Szenes who was shot by firing squad in 1944 in Hungary when she was just 23 years old.”
Cathie went on to share snippets of some of the remarkable stories that have come to light. This includes the story of Jacob Lipshitz who was on duty at the British Museum when it was bombed. Jacob helped to put out the fire. She also told me about Amichai Honig who was killed in Italy. The Italians buried his body and only decades later his family found out about what happened to him. His remains were retrieved and he was reburied in a cemetery near Haifa. Then there was the case of David Stanton who had a cross on his headstone, something that occurred quite frequently, Cathie mentioned. She has just submitted proof to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission that Stanton was Jewish and not Christian in the hope that his headstone can be changed and his true identity reinstated. She also mentioned another case, that of Israel Yakobovitch, who served under the name of Harold Jackson .
“His headstone,” Cathie told me, “has a star of David on it and an inscription that reads: ‘I am a Jew’.”
Cathie’s husband Phil has always worked in transport. Two years ago he was approached by a company based in Israel to work on the Haifa to Nazareth light rail project.
“He was getting fed up with the two hour commute from Lincoln to Birmingham.” Cathie explained. “He decided to accept an invitation to visit Israel and meet with the sponsors of the project. My daughter and I joined him and we fell in love with the place.”
Phil was offered the job and he is now fully engaged in working on the project.
“The company have been very helpful, assisting us in every way. Phil was able to rent a great apartment in Jaffa. He has a car and commutes to work in Holon, a far shorter commute than the one in England.”
Before the pandemic, my wife Annie and I met with Cathie and Phil. They came to Jerusalem with their two children Greg and Enny. They are a delightful family and we’ve subsequently met with Cathie in Tel Aviv on at least two occasions. She has decided to spend more time in Israel with Phil.
“When corona started it seemed ridiculous for Phil to be on his own in Israel and me alone in our house in Lincoln. The children are grown up and quite independent so it made sense for me to come here and spend time with Phil in our lovely flat in Jaffa where I can carry on with my work on the internet and at the same time enjoy the Israeli sunshine.”
AS A writer and a Jew, I was intrigued by Cathie’s story and remained inspired and fascinated by her passion and enthusiasm. I still could not get my head round the fact that a person not connected to the Jewish faith, had chosen to dedicate her own resources and time to this incredibly noble project. Earlier on in our conversations she alluded to the fact that there was some Jewish family connection in the long and distant past. She promised to research it and report back. Only recently we received an email from Cathie that brought a tear to our eyes. It made us appreciate her and the work that she is doing even more. She wrote:
“My great uncle was a male nurse working at Stirling District Asylum from 1907-1911. (Scotland)
He served in the Royal Army medical Corps in WW1 where he met a young Jewish woman, Katie Rosen who was a nursing sister from Glasgow. They served in France in the French Red Cross. Her father was Abraham. Despite a number of attempts, I have not been able to find any further information about him. Andrew married Katie in 1921, one year after leaving the Army. He became a wine and spirit merchant, and she carried on nursing in Glasgow looking after TB patients. Sadly, she herself died of TB aged 44 after 13 years of marriage to Andrew. They had no children.
Andrew was last seen on 28 June 1932 in Airdrie five weeks after Katie’s death. His body was found floating in Beardmore shipyard in July 1932. The coroner ruled his death as suicide.”
IT READ like something out of Vera Brittan’s First World War Memoirs – Testament of Youth. I wanted to tell Cathie that if I were a Buddhist, a Hindu or a Mekubal (Kabbalistic Sage), I would suggest to her she was probably the reincarnated Neshama (soul) of her Great Aunt Katie! Nevertheless without getting too carried away, I believe that this gracious self-effacing Christian woman who regularly shells out money to pay for the death certificates of her ‘more stubborn cases’ so that she can complete her research, deserves our sincerest praise and gratitude. One of the key reasons why Cathie agreed to be interviewed was her desire to spread the word about the Website. As Cathie continues her work, she is interested to hear from anyone who is willing to help her with her research. She is currently looking for more information about the following servicemen whose names appear on the website:
Ernest Abner Amzalak, Alfred Fenger, Samuel Eliyahu Weiner and Shalom Assata.
In addition readers are encouraged to visit the website to read the fascinating stories and view the remarkable photographs of the hundreds of Jewish men and women who gave their lives for the sake of our freedom and survival. The website address is: https://www.thejewsoftheraf.co.uk