Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Chevalier Harvey Wittenberg

"It was a horrible place to see, the ovens, the mass graves [Auschwitz]. It was hard to realize that people could make others suffer so much. But they did. I saw it. I've never forgotten it."
"It came as quite a surprise to me [receiving the French Rank of Knight of the Legion of Honour] I would be honoured in this way. I appreciate it very much, but there was a lot of men I knew in the war who should be getting it. If there was only some way I could reach them and say, 'Here. I'm getting this for you.' I accepted it on their behalf."
"Sometimes my mind goes back to the war. I don't think anyone who has served can ever really forget it. You can't really shut it out of your mind. Sometimes I still dream of things that happened int he war."
"Nijmegen was scary. [Nijmegen Salient, among the last major battles of WWII.] The Germans broke through and we were surrounded for a short while."
"We'd all heard so much about it [Auschwitz]. I had to see it for myself. They showed us where they burned the bodies in the ovens, and the mass graves. The smell was something awful. I find it difficult to believe anyone would say it never happened."
"I've had the opportunity in my 94 years to see some big changes in the world, but when I think of my grandchildren [six] I wonder what kind of world they are going to face. There's going to be another war. That's inevitable."
Harvey Wittenberg, Canadian serviceman during the Second World War
Harvey Wittenburg, 94, recently received one of France's highest honours, the Rank of Knight of the Legion of Honour, for his services as a soldier in the Canadian Army during the Second World War.
Jean Levac/Ottawa Citizen

Harvey Wittenberg visited Auschwitz after its liberation, when the Second World War was declared over. At the time he was a corporal with what remained of the Canadian occupation forces. He was assigned to drive a Jeep of senior Canadian military officers through the gates of Auschwitz, a geographic place transformed into a living hell for its unfortunate inmates. One of the most infamous of the horribly genocidal Last Solution slaughter houses of the Third Reich. Ninety percent of the estimated million people whose lives were obliterated there were Jews.

In 1939 at the age of 17 Mr. Wittenberg became a reservist in the Canadian Army Service Corps. At eighteen he walked into a recruiting office on Queen Street, Toronto, to enlist his services for active duty in the war. In 1940 he arrived with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division in England, spending the following two years training in various camps around the British Isles, learning to drive anything on wheels; motorcycles, jeeps, troop trucks.

The 1942 Dieppe raid saw the 2nd Division providing most of the men for Operation Jubilee. Many of the almost five thousand men and officers who went ashore were taken prisoner, but 3,369 were killed or wounded. Mr. Wittenberg's role had been to load equipment on the landing craft used in the raid; he was not among those taken prisoner. In 1944 he was hiding in roadside ditches in France as German fighters and bombers struck Canadian troops during the fighting for the port city of Caen.

His division fought across the Belgian border after the Caen campaign, moving on to the Scheldt Estuary where fighting was fierce and the 2nd Division lost 3,650 men during thirty-three days of combat. This elderly man with his searing memories recalled seeing German soldiers shooting Allied soldiers as they descended in parachutes: "The Germans killed them before they even landed", he said of that mournful memory scalded into his memory.

During the final months of the war his division was struck with some of its heaviest casualties; at least 300 men were killed and over a thousand wounded between late February and March of 1945; a month before the end of the war on May 5. He remained in the army for another year, helping with the disbanding of army units and the return of troops to Canada. It was at this juncture that he had visited Auschwitz.

In late December of 2014, the Government of France honoured Mr. Wittenberg with the Legion of Honour, the country's highest decoration, as a Chevalier (Knight). A commendation long in the coming, but appreciated irrespective. This was France's undertaking reflecting on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in June of 1944, in recognition of about 600 surviving Canadian veterans who had taken part in the campaigns for the liberation of France from Nazi occupation.

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