Dear Friends and honoured guests, here we are gathered together for this sacred service of Remembrance. We probably think we know what we mean by the word ‘remembrance’. At a remembrance service, we remember. But of course, we don’t all remember. None of us here today remember the First World War, and only a few of us will remember the Second World War. We rely on the memories of others in order to remember. We rely on the news accounts of the time, on the diaries and autobiographies and poems written by those who were there.
During this past year, here at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, two of our splendid old soldiers passed away, both veterans of combat in the Second World War: Dennis Hollis, who died almost exactly a year ago on 9th November 2016, at the age of 91, and Warwick Winston, who died on 12th April this year, less than four weeks before his 94th birthday. I would like to tell you about them now so that we remember their stories.
The country had been at war for almost four years, when in May 1943, a few months before he turned 18, Dennis decided that he wanted to join up to fight Hitler. The Sergeant Major who saw Dennis at the London Station Recruiting Office, accepted that the young lad in front of him was old enough to serve, and Dennis went off to the West Kent Regiment based at Maidstone. But young Private Hollis was looking for a challenge, so he volunteered for the 12th Battalion Parachute regiment. After an arduous period of training, which included marching ten miles in two hours in full battle order, Private Hollis was ready for action, and in due course, his unit parachuted into a field near the Rhine on March 24th 1945, where the enemy was concealed in haystacks. I am grateful to Sidney Lipman, stalwart of Brighton and Hove AJEX for the account of what happened, published in Sussex Jewish News:
Gliders carrying airborne forces had landed on the other side of the Rhine, but a small party of paratroopers was cut off by the enemy, and it was essential to contact them by radio in order to guide them to the main body and also to communicate with Divisional Headquarters some miles away. Unfortunately, the only radio was in a glider some distance away, which the Germans had covered with Spandau fire. Two volunteers went out to try and bring the radio back. One was killed and the other badly injured. Lance Corporal Hollis (a private at the time) then volunteered and succeeded, as the official citation reads, ‘at great personal risk to himself.’ As a result, the small isolated party was guided back to the main body and contact with Divisional Headquarters.
In response to his bravery, Private Hollis was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal and awarded the prestigious Military Medal. He also received the 1939-1945 Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence of Britain Medal and the War Medal.
Throughout the remainder of his life, Dennis never lost his soldierly upright bearing: always impeccably turned out and always on time. His experience of being a soldier also taught him to help others, and a regular at the synagogue, while he was still able, Dennis volunteered at the Jewish Day Centre and was always ready to give people lifts and run errands for them.
Unlike Dennis, Warwick, did not say much about his life as a soldier. His daughter Mandy recalled at his funeral that ‘Warwick was the perfect time-keeper; he liked to arrive early for everything.’ But Warwick did not tell his daughter anything about being a Royal Marine during the war, while she was growing up. It was only when they went together in his later years to Bletchley Park and saw an exhibition of World War II ships that Warwick began to tell her about his wartime experiences. And so, Mandy was able to share his story at his funeral. This is what she said:
‘He had signed-up immediately war was declared by lying about his age! Then on his 18th birthday, 5th May 1941, he left Avonmouth on his first voyage, an Armed Merchant Ship, the Highland Princess, taking troops to Durban, then onto Buenos Aries. His ship was blown up and sunk in the South Atlantic – Luckily survivors were picked up by an Australian destroyer, Warwick amongst them.
‘His next ship, the fast Isle de France took him to the Middle East. He helped form and train the new combined units of Beach Masters. Later Mountbatten wrote “the success of an operation largely depends on the speed and efficiency with which the (Royal Navy Beach) commandos get their beaches organised to receive the force to be landed.”
‘Warwick was also in Crete, Malta, Sicily and Israel. In Tel Aviv, the Royal Marine 9th Battalion became a Royal Marine 40 Commando. It was on the beach during the battle at Tobruk that Warwick was injured by shrapnel in his back. During his recovery in 2nd General Field Hospital in Ismailia he got sent to collect bundles of 100 blankets: In true Warwick fashion, he got them counted – only to find all the bundles contained only 96. You can’t fool the inspector!
‘He then went to Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to an airfield that had been mined – he taught troops how to plot and clear a minefield. The area was criss-crossed by dykes which were full of alligators – another close shave!
‘Warwick moved around the world again, ending up on the Andaman Islands, where he found the last Japanese soldier. Half an hour later he felt his foot wet, and when he took off his boot it was full of blood! He’d been bayoneted in the knee! Luckily, he got moved around before they could amputate his leg, ending up on a hospital ship that took him back to civilian hospital in Colombo. At the end of the war he returned to the UK and was invalided out.’
Proud veterans of the Second World War, Dennis and Warwick also became firm friends, supporting one another with daily phone calls and weekly lunches together. They were both also regulars at our Shabbat morning services – indeed, in his early 80s, Warwick became head of synagogue security, standing at the door on Shabbat mornings. We miss them both deeply. Zichronam livrachah – May their memory be for blessing.
May their memory be for blessing. We say these words every time we recall someone who is no longer with us, reminding ourselves that people live on through us and that we have the responsibility to remember them. The Jewish people specialises in remembrance. As we turn the Torah again and again each year, we remember the liberation of our ancestors from slavery. Remembrance of that foundational narrative is also secured by the blessing of redemption recited at daily evening and morning services, by observance of Shabbat, the sacred seventh day of rest and freedom, and at the Festival of Pesach, Passover. The Torah reading cycle, the liturgy and the festival cycle, all combine to aid our remembrance.
For Jews, remembrance is a commandment. But it is not an end in itself. Repeatedly, in the Torah remembrance of the Exodus is linked to laws concerning our treatment of the stranger. We read, for example, in Mishpatim, the first code of law in the Torah, following the account of Revelation in the Book of Exodus, these two verses. In chapter 22: ‘A stranger you shall not wrong, neither shall you oppress them; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’. And then further in chapter 23: ‘A stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the nefesh – the inner-being – of the stranger, since you are strangers in the land of Egypt.’
Remembrance of events in the past is supposed to guide our actions in the present for the sake of the future. And so, as we focus our remembrance today on the soldiers killed in combat in the First and Second World Wars, and pay tribute to their heroism, courage and self-sacrifice, let us also honour our fallen warriors by challenging tyranny and resolving conflicts without resort to violence, so that we can look forward to a time of which the prophets spoke when: ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and learn war no more.’ 
How wise are these words: People learn to make war, and so we must also learn to make peace. Learning is very hard. We try and we fail, again and again. But we must keep on trying. As we read in Pirkei Avot, the collection of wise aphorisms of the early rabbinic sages, appended to the Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of law, edited around the year 200 CE: ‘It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’
The challenge before all the nations is clear – and couldn’t be more urgent. The First World War was initially described as ‘the war to end all wars’. The Second World War unleashed even more devastating violence. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, while finally forcing the capitulation of the Japanese government, and so bringing an end to the war in the east, simultaneously, presented the world with the terrifying prospect of nuclear war, which, potentially could destroy all life completely.
War in so many different forms continued through the 20th century. Let us remember that century of slaughter and acknowledge that the new century so far has been a time of continuous war, without an end in sight. Ultimately, remembrance must lead to re-membering; to mending and healing. May this sacred day for remembrance inspire us to re-commit ourselves to the task of repairing all the broken parts of our broken world. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove AJEX Service
12th November 2017 – 23rd Cheshvan 5778