When I was a youngster in shorts and freckles, my mother used to embarrass me by placing her hand under my nose and telling any aunt, uncle or cousin who would listen: "From the nose up, he looks just like Sydney."
Sydney was the young man in the photo that hung on my mother's bedroom wall. Dressed in a Royal Canadian Air Force uniform, with a pencil mustache above his upper lip and looking serious, my uncle Sydney was a mystery man to me. As was the young man in the other photograph, my uncle Zave, who wore a Canadian army uniform.
All I knew was that Sydney and Zave Brown, my mother's brothers, had died in the Second World War.
At first, I wondered who they were. Then my mother told me never to talk about them with my grandparents. This made my uncles more exotic, since obviously there was a secret that was not to be discussed in family circles. No one was prepared to tell me much and so my interest eventually waned.
During my teenage years and beyond, when my rift with my parents grew, I decided that if they didn't want to tell me about the two men on the wall, then I didn't want to know. I would stop asking questions and forget about them, which I did, much to my disappointment many years later.
As my mother turned 90 recently, with grandparents, aunts and uncles dead, it suddenly struck me that there would be no one left to remember my two uncles. No one to light a candle during the high holidays. No one to remember they were basically cannon fodder in the last truly just war.
When I was growing up, Remembrance Day in our house was one more school holiday. I never saw any family member buy or wear a poppy. And there was never any discussion of the two young lives lost fighting for Canada against the Germans.
It was no easy task to find out who my two uncles were and how they came to die.
Sixty-five years have gone by since their deaths, but my mother still has difficulty talking about them. And whether it is age or a profound sense of guilt or who knows what, she still is a source of precious little information - most of it contradicting what I have since been able to dig up.
There were three sources that turned out to be invaluable in trying to piece together what happened to those two young men: the Internet, Library and Archives Canada, and a book called Tail-End Charlies: The Last Battles of the Bomber War 1944-45 by John Nichol and Tony Rennell, which describes in horrific detail what happened to those who flew in bombers to the Valley of Death, as the industrial Ruhr Valley was called.
On one of those bombing missions, his 27th and only three short of completing his operational tour, my uncle Sydney died. He was the plane's bomb aimer and a newly promoted flying officer. His Wellington bomber was returning from a night raid on Stuttgart when it was attacked by an enemy fighter and crashed near the small French village of Mesnil-St. Laurent.
Uncle Sydney and the rear gunner, who also died, were buried next to each other ƒo
in the village cemetery.
The rest of the bomber's crew bailed out and eventually managed to make their way back to England. They provided an incorrect version of the village name that was not on any maps. The location of the crash was a mystery. The families of the two missing aircrew were told they were missing in action.
It wasn't until 1947, after further questioning of the survivors, that the village and the site of the crash were located. The air force sent an officer to investigate and he determined that "the short man with the pencil mustache" buried under a black German military cross in the village cemetery was in fact my uncle.
I found this information in my uncle Sydney's file in the national archives in Ottawa. I also found letters from my mother inquiring about his whereabouts. It was obvious she was clinging desperately to the hope that he was still alive.
The family had already received word that his younger brother, Zave, had been shot and killed in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, near the German border, only 56 days before the end of the war. He was 19. He had joined the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry less than a year earlier, partly in the hope of finding his missing brother. Their graves are separated by a drive of only a few hours.
Recently, while clearing out my mother's apartment, I came across a letter from my uncle Sydney. Addressed to his mother and father, Sydney wrote that he hoped to open a garage in North Bay after the war. He said he had arranged an eight-day leave so he could spend Passover with a family in London.
The letter was handwritten on April 10, 1943, nine days before Passover was to begin. He never made it. His bomber was shot down on April 15. He was 24.
The German military cross on his grave (the Germans never knew he was Jewish) has been replaced with a Canadian military memorial stone bearing the Star of David. Every year the people of Mesnil-St. Laurent hold a memorial service to honour my uncle Sydney and his fellow crew member.
Howard Fluxgold lives in North Vancouver, B.C.