Fighting Back, British Jewry's Military Contribution in the Second World War

Posted By Ann Rabinowitz

Military history has always fascinated me and now, there is a fine book just out which covers an area of it that I am personally interested in, that of the participation of British Jews in World War II. The book is entitled Fighting Back, British Jewry’s Military Contribution in the Second World War. It is written by Martin Sugarman, the Archivist of The AJEX (Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women) Jewish Military Museum located in London, England.

It is meticulously documented and filled with the stories of participants, both men and women, combatants and non-combatants, who made a real and lasting contribution to the war. The facts and figures presented in a readable and concise form puts often made anti-semitic allegations to rest that Jews did not give their all to the war effort.

The material in the book could easily deserve expansion into several volumes. It certainly provides a tantalizing initial taste of what is out there on this topic. It can prove to be an enticing exploration for the intrepid genealogical researcher to learn more about the military exploits of their ancestors. Or, for those just interested in military history and Jewish soldiers, they can follow the lead of the book to other resources.

A first stop beyond the book is the AJEX Jewish Military Museum site for more information. In this regard, the Jewish Military Museum sponsors a Record of Honour which has all men and women who served in the military from 1939 to 1960. You can search by either name or service number, if you have it. When I sampled this database, I found a number of my family listed including those who served after World War II. The entries provided the name of the individual, former name (if applicable), date of birth, and service details including their service, branch of service, service number and servicetime home address area. There was also a space to provide a photograph of the individual in their uniform.

After informing my family that the information about their relatives was available in this database, one of my cousins decided to add further information and a photograph of his father. It is just such additions that enhance the database and its utility.

Benjamin Fink (Courtesy of AJEX Record of Honour Database)

One thing I noticed in the photograph above of my Uncle Ben Fink is that there were some fingers around my uncle’s waist. Upon asking my cousin Brian who was also in the photo, I learned that it was his mother Vera. He had cropped the photo to send to AJEX! It goes to show you that you should look carefully at family photos.

Another interesting resource, as a complement to the piece in Sugarman’s book, is a listing of the twenty-four missing Jewish Palestinian commandos who participated in “Operation Boatswain on May 18, 1941. This operation which was launched in Haifa, with the expectation of attacking the oil refineries in the Port of Tripoli, Lebanon, was never realized as the men and their boat simply disappeared. It was one of the little remarked upon episodes of a great war which spanned many continents.

In regard to tales of individual British-born soldiers and their accomplishments, one of the bravest mentioned in the book was Captain Isadore Newman, who Martin Sugarman had written about extensively prior to the publication of his book.

Captain Isadore Newman Recipient of an MBE, MiD, and Croix de Guerre
As Sugarman found, Newman was born in Leeds, England to parents, Joseph Newman and Tilly Cohen. His father, Joseph, one of thirteen siblings, came from Lithuania in 1909 and his ancestral family name was said to have been NAVIPRUTSKY.

Going a bit further with this, I attempted to determine the exact location of the family’s ancestral shtetl. In order to do this, I searched the LitvakSIG’s All-Lithuania Database and found that there were many families with the name NOVOPRUTSKY including a number whose first name was Jossel or Joseph. They all lived in the town of Lida in Vilna Guberniya.

Enlisting the assistance of the LitvakSIG Lida District Coordinator, Judy Baston, I was able to confirm that NOVOPRUTSKY was a well-known name in the town of Lida. This was, in all probability, the same family and could be traced further back once the name of Joseph Newman’s father was found on his tombstone which is in the Old Hebrew Congregation burial ground in Hull . This listing is part of the JewishGen JOWBR database. More information on the Hull community and possibly the Newman family can also be found on the JewishGen’s JCR-UK site for Hull. According to Judy Baston, there are also numerous Novoprutsky families living in Canada which might prove interesting to research.

As a secret agent for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Isadore Newman served behind German lines transmitting messages. His life ended when he was captured and sent to his death at the Mathausen Concentration Camp, a victim of the Nazis. In addition, I found that my cousin Warren Winetroube, a barrister, was mentioned in regard to Newman as he tried to assist his parents gain information regarding his whereabouts.

An interesting adjunct to this story is that Sugarman mentions that there were approximately 1,088 Jewish SOE agents out of a total of 13,000 agents, altogether, who participated in the war. There were 190 Jewish agents who received awards and 115 were killed. The 8.3% of their participation is astonishing given that the Jewish population only made up ½ of 1% of the British population.

Worth mentioning too is the legendary Hannah Senesh, who was an SOE agent attached to the “A” Force 199, Palestinian Jewish agents, Cairo, operating under the alias of “Minnie” or “Georg”. One of three hundred volunteers, she was also murdered by the Nazis.

Two other SOE agents who lived to play crucial roles in post-War Israel were Abba Eban and Moshe Shertok and one agent, Anton Walter Freud, was a grandson of Sigmund Freud. A further chapter is devoted to two Jewish heroines of the SOE: Muriel Byck and Denise Bloch, who represent the thirty-nine women who were utilized by the SOE during the war years.

Not all the heroic military participants mentioned in the book were British as can be seen in the instance of Captain William (Wolfe) Frederick Friedman. He was born in Kishinev, Bessarabia (now Chisinau, Moldova) and came with his family to Pittsburgh, PA. During the War, he ended up as one of the most renowned of the cryptographers of Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking establishment.
Captain William (Wolfe) Frederick Friedman

More about Captain Friedman is available at and He gained fame for cracking the “Purple” Code of the Japanese and other such endeavors. Apart from individuals who served during the war, one of the Jewish military organizations that was discussed and which I had not heard of before was the “Ha Gedud Ha Sinit”. This was the Jewish Company of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps which was established in 1853.

The Last Annual Parade of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps

In addition to the chapter written about the Corps in Sugarman’s book, he had also previously written about it as follows: It was an important and little known aspect of Jewish participation in the Far East during the war.

A further chapter of interest is that which covers the participants in the Spanish Civil War (July, 1936 – April, 1939) which Sugarman termed as offering the first blow against the fascists. The chapter includes British and Palestinian (Israeli) Jews who served in the International Brigade. A number of these had provided interviews and first-hand accounts of their service. These pointed to the fact that many were observant Jews and Zionists who went for humanitarian reasons, but were not necessarily either Socialists or Communists as has been specified in other accounts.

Among the volunteers was Morry Levitus/Levitas, the only Irish Jewish volunteer, born in Dublin, on February 1, 1917. His write up includes the fact that he was the son of Harry Levitas, who came to Ireland from Kovno, Lithuania in 1912, and who married Leah Rick. Additional information is provided which is invaluable as it pertains to a family who would not have been found in the 1911 Irish or British Census or other such records.

There are also mentions of those many other Jews who served in the Jaroslaw Dombrowsky Brigade (Poland), Abraham Lincoln/Washington Brigade (America), Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (Canada), Latvian Volunteers (Latvia), Franco-Belge Brigade (France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), Georges Dimitrov Brigade (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria), Thaelmann Battalion (Germany), the Austrians, and the Garibaldi Brigade (Italy).

An area of Jewish participation in the War about which little is known by the general public is covered in Sugarman’s book . . . this was the Fire Service. The book honors and lists the 84 individuals who were killed during the war and there is a project afoot which will document the thousands more who valiantly and steadfastly served their country amidst the German bombs during the Blitz of London.

In commemoration of the participation of individuals in the Fire Service, a charitable group entitled World War II London Firemen and Firewomen’s Remembrance Group has been created which covers the period of 1939-1945. The group can also be found on Facebook. Stephanie Maltman is quite active in this group and assisted Martin Sugarman in accessing records from which those who were killed and further individuals who served will be documented.

An example of the Jewish participation in the Fire Service was Harry Errington (originally Ehrengott). He was the only London wartime Fire Service member who was awarded the George Cross.
Harry Errington (Ehrengott)

Not only is he mentioned in Sugarman’s book, but he can be found referred to in the August 2006 issue of B-J News (online journal of British-Jewry) by Mike Joseph, assisted in his research by Sherry Landa, and in Volume 3, Number 2, MONTREAL FORUM, December, 2007.

Given the information in Sugarman’s book and that included in the articles, one can then further trace the Ehrengott family in London. Basically, Harry Ehrengott was born on August 29, 1910, in London, England, the son of Shepsel and Baila Ehrengott (later Solomon and Bella Errington), who had arrived in England from Lublin, Poland, in 1908. They had followed other Ehrengott relatives, Samuel and Fanny Ehrengott and children, to England. In 1911, they were found living in London along with Solomon’s mother Masha, a widow, and his several siblings.

A final note is about Wing Commander Lionel Cohen, son of Joseph Andrew Freeman Cohen, of Prussian-Jewish ancestry, who was born June 7, 1875, in Newcastle upon Tyne, and who died in 1960. He was known as the “man of one hundred lives”. As a teenager, he ran away to join the military, served in all three military services and was awarded the following twelve decorations: DSO; MC (First World War); DFC (Second World War); Matabeleland Campaign Medal; Queen’s South Africa Medal (Boer War); 1914-1915 Star; War Medal; Victory Medal with MiD (First World War); 1939-1945 Star: Defence Medal; War Medal with MiD; American Air Medal (Second World War).

An amazing character, the chapter devoted to his exploits is fascinating. Looking further into his ancestry to perhaps find the roots of behavior, I found that Lionel had gone out to his paternal uncle in South Africa. His uncle was Harry Freeman Cohen, a well-known South African personality, who married Annie Graumann, the sister of Sir Harry Graumann, the first Jewish Mayor of Johannesburg and a Member of Parliament. In addition, he founded the Rand Daily Mail which Lionel and his brother Jack inherited when their uncle died.

The editor of the Rand Daily Mail, Edgar Wallace wrote about Harry Freeman Cohen in detail. His writings give an idea of the venturesome spirit exhibited by Harry which was also the inheritance; it seems, of his nephew Lionel as well.

The Sugarman book is filled with many genealogical tidbits and fascinating historical facts which can open a window into an all-encompassing world of genealogical research on a specific family. For that reason alone, the book is well-worth reading and is available through regular online booksellers.


  1. A very interesting review. Moshe Shertok became Moshe Sharett, Israeli Foreign Minister.

    A lot of the genealogical work with AJEX is related to proving Jewish ancestry in cases where a cross has been put on the grave of a Jewish serviceman and then having the CWGC replace it with a Magen David.

    Saul Issroff

  2. Forgot to add he became the second PM of Israel.

  3. Canada was part of the British commonwealth during WW II. Over a million Canadian soldiers fought against the Nazis in WW II and among them were about 17,000 Canadian Jewish soldiers. It appears from what is written here that the contribution of Canadian Jewish soldiers and pilots has been for the most part left out of this book.

  4. Hello, my name is John Newman and I have just found this article - very interesting stuff as Isidore Newman was my Great Uncle! I am currently exploring my family tree on the Newman/Novoprutsky side and was wondering if you happened to know the name of Joseph Newman's father? If you or anyone who happens to read this article would like to contact me I would be happy to share some other info I have found - my email address is


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