A Jewish Veteran from London Prepares to Commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings

Mervyn Kersh D-Day veteran who fought in the Normandy Campaign, at his home in London
Mervyn Kersh D-Day veteran who fought in the Normandy Campaign, at his home in London, Monday, April 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON — Even as he prepared to embark for the battlefields of Normandy, Pvt. Mervyn Kersh was summoned by his commanding officer and threatened with arrest.

Why, the officer demanded, had Kersh refused to eat his army rations of canned beef and vegetables, subsisting only on canned peaches? Was he trying to make himself so weak that he would be unfit to fight in France?

Kersh, then 19, was indignant.

“I said that was the last thing I wanted to do,’’ Kersh told The Associated Press. “I’m Jewish. I didn’t eat anything that wasn’t kosher as far as I could help it.’’

The officer dropped the charge and Kersh was soon on board a landing ship approaching the Normandy coast with artillery shells from Allied ships and German shore batteries screaming overhead. The sense of adventure turned to fear, Kersh recalled, and he sought comfort from a pocket edition of “The Book of Psalms” before landing in France a few days after D-Day, which on June 6, 1944.

Kersh will return to France next week for ceremonies marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy that followed. It's expected to be one of the last big events commemorating the campaign to end the Nazis’ grip on Northern Europe, with the dwindling number of surviving veterans now approaching or past their 100th birthdays.

Growing up in a Jewish family in south London during the 1930s and ’40s, Kersh, now 99, was doubly motivated to defeat Adolf Hitler. In addition to the threat to Britain and the bombing that killed almost 30,000 people in the capital, there was the knowledge that the Nazis were slaughtering Jews across Europe.

“I could almost say it was a crusade, if that’s not the wrong word,” Kersh said. “To me, this had a purpose. It wasn’t just a game or passing the time. … It was to put the Germans out of action as long as possible.”

“We knew what was happening. (We) didn’t know the extent of it, but we knew they had gas chambers. They were killing people, shooting them, hanging them.”

That motivation translated into an above average level of military service for British Jews during World War II. About 70,000 Jews, or 18% of the Jewish population, served in the U.K. armed forces during the war, compared with 11% for the population as a whole.

Both Britain and the U.S. benefitted from large Jewish populations that were highly motivated to defeat Nazi Germany and provided a pool of recruits who had valuable language skills and other knowledge that the Allies needed for the war effort, said Rob Citino, a retired senior historian at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

Henry Kissinger, for example, was born in Germany, fled to London with his family, then moved to New York where he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Kissinger served in counterintelligence during the advance into Germany, helping to arrest saboteurs and Gestapo secret police operatives.

“If there’s ever a soldier who is going to fight with spirit in the field against the Nazis, of course it would be a Jewish-American or an Anglo Jewish citizen of the British Isles,” Citino said.

Assigned to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, Kersh’s role in the invasion was to help ensure a steady flow of vehicles — everything from motorcycles to 48-wheel tank transporters — to British Army units fighting their way to Berlin.

Advancing across Europe, he saw for himself what the war had meant for Jews.

There were the people in Bayeux, France, who came out of hiding to hear a rabbi deliver a service for Jewish troops, and in Brussels, two black-hatted men told Kersh how they had spent four years in one tiny room, surviving on the meager rations a neighbor shared with them.

But it was at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp that he saw the true horrors of the war. British troops liberated the camp on April 15, 1945, finding 60,000 starving prisoners and thousands of unburied bodies.

When Kersh arrived in the area a few weeks later to await a transfer, he visited the camp. He wasn’t allowed to enter because of the danger of typhus, but outside the gates he met skeleton-like former prisoners still wearing their striped prison uniforms.

Kersh tried to help, collecting chocolate rations from other soldiers and passing them onto the survivors whose eyes lit up at the sight of food they hadn’t seen for years. But that act of kindness makes him pause almost 80 years later.

“I found out afterwards that that was the worst thing you could give starving people,” he said. “How many died from that? I don’t know. But I didn’t know it at the time.’’

After his years in the army, including a stint in Egypt after the war, Kersh found his dream of becoming a retail store manager blocked by employers who thought he was too old to join a training program at the age of 22. He ultimately found success pioneering the market for fake fur coats and as a writer.

But in recent years, his vocation has become visiting schools and community groups to tell his story, reminding younger generations about the dangers of antisemitism and what can happen if world leaders don’t stand up to tyrants.

The French government in 2015 awarded Kersh the Legion d’Honneur, the country’s highest order of merit, for his participation in the Normandy campaign. And five years later, then U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson honored Kersh for his “tireless efforts” to reach out to young people.

Eight decades after he rolled onto Gold Beach in a tracked personnel carrier, Kersh is the first to admit that he had an easier path than the men who splashed through the surf facing a fusillade of gunfire and mortar shells in the days before him. And he recognizes that he is being feted in part because he’s one of the last men standing from the campaign to liberate Europe.

But that makes it all the more important to him to tell the story.

“When I go back, each time I go back, and look at the military cemeteries, I just think how lucky I am, because I’ve got the choice of going home again," he said. ”And they haven’t. They just lost their lives, but it was for something worthwhile, if that’s any compensation."

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