Six days before D-Day, Max Meisels and his fellow Jewish soldiers got an order from their commanding officer.
“If the Germans catch you, you’re dead,” the officer told them. “You have 10 minutes. Go to the telephone book and get a new name.”
Meisels emerged from that meeting as Martin Maxwell, the name he carried throughout his time in the British army and bears to this day.
Maxwell went on to play a key role in the early hours of D-Day, the opening salvo of the bloody Allied invasion that ultimately led to the defeat of the German army.
At the time, Maxwell felt he had helped strike a decisive blow against the rabid anti-Semitism that fuelled Adolf Hitler’s rise and led to the killings of millions of Jews, including his own relatives.
But today, as hate crimes against Jews surge dramatically in Canada and around the world, the longtime Toronto resident and decorated veteran isn’t so sure.
“I feel like I’m reliving the 1930s,” Maxwell, 95, said in an interview. “The rise of anti-Semitism is something unbelievable.”
Orphaned at a young age, Maxwell watched with despair as the Jewish-run orphanages in Vienna that housed him and his siblings were closed in the wake of Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria. He endured the sight of relatives being rounded up by German officers, never to be heard from again.
When he secured passage to England through a program that rescued nearly 10,000 children from Nazi-occupied countries, he eagerly waited until he was old enough to join the British military.
He was closer to the action than most when D-Day dawned, having flown in with a group of fellow glider pilots under cover of darkness in a stealth mission to destroy one of the bridges German troops relied upon to bring them reinforcements in the looming battle.
Their goal, he said, was to secure the bridge ahead of the main assault and to do so in relative silence so as not to warn enemy soldiers of the pending attack.
“We were towed by a plane on a rope, and when you think you have your target, you cut the rope and you fly,” he said. “The glider can only go down, but not up.”
Once there, Maxwell and his peers were told to avoid the racket of gunfire and rely on bayonets and knives to slay German soldiers.
The harrowing scenes he witnessed in the ensuing days lingered long after the Nazis were defeated. The image of one fallen Allied soldier, he said, remains particularly vivid.
“His helmet had fallen off, he had red hair, and he looked like he was asleep except with a bullet hole through his head,” Maxwell said. “And I thought, ‘in years to come, will anybody remember what you did so that we could live in freedom?'”
Recent international headlines make Maxwell suspect the answer is no, and Canadian data validate his fears.
Statistics Canada documented a 47 per cent rise in police-reported hate crimes between 2016 and 2017, with incidents involving Jews surging 63 per cent and coming second only to the 151 per cent spike in attacks against Muslims.
A report on anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 prepared by the League for Human Rights, the advocacy arm of B’nai Brith Canada, documented a 16.5 per cent increase over levels recorded in 2017. The report also noted anti-Semitic incidents had climbed steadily for the past three years and have reached levels not seen since 1982.
Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, said the pervasive nature of anti-Semitism is part of its unique complexity.
Unlike some ideologies that flourish only in isolated social groups, Perry said anti-Jewish sentiment can be found across the political spectrum. Hatred and distrust of Jews underpins everything from overt white nationalism to conspiracy theories blaming Jews for economic woes and social inequality, she added.
“Jews are relatively privileged in terms of their relationship to the cultural and economic and political elite, yet they still are subject to a whole array of very old, outdated stereotypes as well as new ones,” Perry said, “But then, of course, that very closeness…with the corridors of power further feeds that mythology.”
Alex Polowin, a former Able Seaman with the Royal Canadian Navy, said he’s keenly aware of the increasingly hostile climate.
He, too, was motivated to join up after Nazis killed his relatives in his birth country of Lithuania.
Like Maxwell, Polowin felt he and his fellow seamen serving aboard the HMCS Huron shaped history when they helped beat back the remnants of Germany’s naval fleet during the D-Day campaign.
“We put them all out of commission, and there was no more Nazi ships in the English Channel,” Polowin said. “Had those ships gotten in, they could have killed numerous Canadian troops that were landing. We prevented that, and I feel very good about it.”
Polowin, 94, said those positive feelings have become more checkered in recent years as a growing number of news headlines illustrate that crushing the Nazis did not defeat anti-Semitism.
He said he’s now constantly mindful of anti-Jewish sentiment and takes pains to avoid situations where he feels his safety may be at risk.
Both he and Maxwell share their wartime recollections with the Memory Project Speakers Bureau in a bid to ensure their efforts were not wasted.
Yet Maxwell keeps tracking the rising tide of anti-Semitism through current events at home and abroad, including two deadly shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and southern California.
The 19-year-old man charged in the California case, according to U.S. authorities, was fuelled by powerful hatred toward both Jews and Muslims and took inspiration from other recent fatal shootings at synagogues and mosques alike.
Maxwell has watched the rise of religious violence with deepening chagrin, quoting a frequent epitaph on the graves of soldiers proclaiming that they sacrificed their todays for survivors’ tomorrows.
“If these young men would get up today and look at the world and what is happening, not only against the Jews — mosques are being attacked, churches are attacked — they would say ‘what the hell have you done with the tomorrows we gave you?'”
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press