Of the 1,347 graves of Canadian soldiers from the Second World War buried in the Dutch cemetery of Holten, the final resting place of Sgt. Harry Bochner is likely the only one that now has some earth from both Jerusalem and Toronto.
Bochner’s great-nephews Elliott and Jonathan Shiff, and their families, placed it there during a September memorial ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in the Netherlands. They were retracing the last steps taken by their grandmother’s brother, before he was killed defending his anti-aircraft gun crew under fire during the final days of the war.
“I brought some earth and stones from Jerusalem, because in one of his letters, Harry says, ‘I hope after the war I have the opportunity to travel and I’d like to visit Palestine’,” said Jonathan Shiff, a Canadian-born lawyer now living in Israel. “And since he never made it to the land of Israel, I’ve brought the land of Israel to him.”
Shiff’s great-uncle Harry was 34 when he was killed by a piece of shrapnel near Holten, during Operation Cannonshot. Bochner fell near a barn while helping one of his men, according to reports.
On that day, April 11, 1945, the Canadian units had been ordered to forge a bridgehead across the IJssel River in the eastern part of The Netherlands, then to push the Germans out of the nearby occupied city of Appeldoorn.
While the crossing was successful, the Canadian advance met with German counter-attacks.
Many observers and soldiers knew the war would soon be over: the Allies were closing in on Berlin, and both Mussolini and Hitler would be dead three weeks later. The ceasefire went into effect on May 5, 1945.
“It just adds to the tragedy,” said Jonathan, adding that his great-uncle had “seen such horrific, horrific fighting for a couple of years in Italy and then he gets killed just before the end when it was really over.”
The most prolific letter writer in Canadian military history: family
The brothers never met Harry, as they were born after the war. Their grandmother Mollie (Bochner) Troster never spoke about her brother, although the Shiffs do recall seeing a picture of him displayed prominently in their grandparents’ apartment.
It was only after their grandmother’s death in 2003 that they discovered a treasure trove in her personal effects—over 1,300 letters from Harry, plus some condolences to his family from his senior officers and friends.
Harry himself felt the odds were against him coming back, despite surviving six years in uniform and fighting in some of the fiercest battles of the war—in North Africa and Italy until a month before he died, according to the Shiffs. You can hear the doubt in one of his last letters, after he praises his sister for cleaning his room every day in the family’s Toronto home at 127 Braemore Gardens.
“He writes in his letters, ‘Even though the war feels like it’s at the end, you know, you’re not there ‘til you’re done.’ And he says, ‘I’m not sure.’,” said Elliott Shiff, a former Toronto journalist who now works in real estate.
The Shiffs have spent nearly 25 years learning about their great-uncle’s life and his wartime experiences. They also tracked down former artillery soldiers who served with him, to paint a more nuanced picture of the stocky, red-headed sergeant.
His first letters were lighthearted while Bochner was training in England—but they became consecutively darker and more introspective after he shipped out to the Italian front. He describes having to scrounge for food to feed his men, going without showers for days, and enduring the cold and mud.
Elliott Shiff thinks Harry was able to remain calm and keep his nerve for so long by doing two things: keeping as clean as possible under the circumstances, and writing a letter every day.
“These were the kinds of things that kind of kept him together,” said Elliott. “I’m sure that that was a way of, not only just keeping up a connection [with his sister and widowed mother], but I also think keeping his own sanity under the worst possible conditions imaginable.”
Harry Bochner was 28 when Canada declared war in September 1939, having been born in Guelph, Ontario in 1911. [Records show he might have been born in 1910, but his military papers show he enlisted with the latter date for his birthday.]
After public school, and three years at Toronto’s Harbord Collegiate high school, Bockner dropped out to go to work.
He was a salesman in the fur business, and, according to family lore, enjoyed partying and carousing, much to the great disapproval of his relatives.
“He was kind of a playboy,” said Jonathan Shiff. “He liked to drink. He liked to run around with women. He liked to play cards, and he was a bit of the black sheep of this very straight-laced family.”
But in 1940, after Germany had swept into Holland, Belgium and France and launched the Blitz air raids across the English Channel on London, Harry Bochner put on a uniform.
He was attached to a militia unit run by Conn Smythe, the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and even managed his baseball team while training in Petawawa, Ontario.
Jewish upbringing part of reason for enlisting: family
On the eve of Yom Kippur (Sept. 29, 1941) Harry enlisted for active service with the Royal Canadian Artillery.
A year later he was in England, learning how to drive an anti-aircraft gun vehicle. In 1943, he and several hundred NCOs (non-commissioned officers) were sent to Italy to be observers with the British forces, but their orders were cancelled en route and he wound up being sent to the front lines.
His relatives aren’t sure what motivated Harry to join up and volunteer to go overseas, although they’ve scoured his letters for clues.
An explanation came after the war, in the 1960s, from Harry’s nephew, the late actor Lloyd Bochner.
Bochner was a Canadian who became a star in Stratford, and then Hollywood. He appeared on the long-running Dynasty series, and in episodes of countless TV shows from the 1950s to the 1990s including The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Golden Girls and The Twilight Zone.
(Lloyd Bochner’s son Hart Bochner is also in show business, and is best known for playing the sleazy lawyer hostage in the first Die Hard movie with Bruce Willis. The Shiffs aren’t sure if Hart was named in memory of Harry, who was his great-uncle, too.)
Lloyd Bochner served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the war, and he told the Shiffs he thinks Harry signed up because he was Jewish.
“[Harry] wanted to set an example as a Jewish man who was able-bodied and willing to go fight,” they were told.
Harry couldn’t tell his family he was eating pork
Bochner grew up in an observant Jewish home, and even while overseas, he tried to keep in touch with his roots. He would write home that he had attended a Kol Nidre service, or that he had remembered to mark his father’s yahrzeit.
“There were a lot of jokes about food that Harry was eating. He couldn’t bring himself to spell the word pork. It was like p, blank blank, k and it made everyone laugh,” Elliott said, adding that it was nearly impossible for Harry or the other Jewish servicemen to keep strictly kosher during the war.
Food jokes aside, Bochner had to confront the antisemitism that was widespread both in Europe at the time, but also within Canadian society and from his own men. On one occasion, when someone piped up that the (now-defunct) Eaton’s department stores were owned by Jews, according to Elliott Shiff, the Jewish sergeant set them straight.
“Harry’s Jewishness was important to him. He wasn’t a religious man. But there are so many references throughout the letters that obviously he grew up in a religious family and that stayed with him, especially as he found himself at war among mostly non-Jews,” Elliott said.
Which is why the brothers were particularly moved when they discovered a letter in their late grandmother’s bedside table from a Jewish chaplain, Capt. Isaac Rose, of Ottawa. It was he who had given Harry a proper Jewish burial in a temporary grave in a meadow near Zutphen.
Rose was one of the first Canadian rabbis permitted to join the troops overseas in the Second World War. He was embedded with the Canadian army as it moved through Italy and then across to France, in March of 1945, to go into action in the Netherlands.
After the war, Rose immigrated to Israel, where he became a client of Jonathan’s. Neither was aware of the connection to his great-uncle Harry. After Jonathan read the old letter, he was stunned and moved by its message.
“And he writes to our great-grandmother that he knew Harry and that he was brave and he was a leader. ‘But mostly, I think of his smile and he was always happy and he knew what he was fighting for and he believed that he was fighting for your freedom.’ And he writes that ‘If you may ask why, if he was so good, why was his candle snuffed out so early? And you should know,’ the rabbi wrote ‘that some people on this earth complete what they’re here for, in a short time’. And it’s signed, Rabbi Isaac Rose.’’
Jonathan then reached out to his client, who confirmed his identity, in a goosebumps kind of moment.
“I said, ‘You buried our uncle’. And here we were 60 years later in Jerusalem and we knew each other.”
The Dutch who still pay tribute
There were more goosebump moments like that during the brothers’ trip through the Netherlands.
In a previous visit, Elliott had located the exact site where Harry had been killed: it was near a barn in the town of Gorssel. This time, 77 years later, the brothers and their families got to meet Johan Wolters, now 85, who had lived on the property at the time.
Wolters was a small boy when his family’s house was being shelled that day. He told the Shiffs he remembered seeing Harry Bochner’s body being carried out of the barn, and the fatal head wound.
The next day, the Shiffs took part in a small memorial service held in the meadow near Zutphen, where Harry had been buried by Rabbi Rose. Organizers had erected 11 markers, including one with a Star of David, for the Canadians who were killed.
The Shiffs learned that after the war, a young girl who lived next to the graveyard, Antje van Geetenbeek, took it upon herself to take care of the graves. She would put flowers on them every day on her way to school.
Incredibly, she was still alive, and in her 90s. For this memorial service, she brought her grandchildren along, and as she was in a wheelchair, she handed out 11 bouquets for them to place at the site.
Bringing Israel to Harry
But it was at the large Holten cemetery where the brothers were able to commemorate their uncle in a much more traditional way.
The Holten cemetery was where their great-uncle was reburied properly after the war, together with hundreds of his comrades who died in the last few weeks and hours of the fighting, and even after the ceasefire.
Aside from the stones and dirt which Jonathan brought from Jerusalem, and the pebbles which Elliott had brought from Canada, they also carried Harry’s personal Jewish prayer book, a siddur, which he had with him during the war. (His army records show he had three such books in his kit. These were sent back to the family with his personal effects.)
Since there were not enough Jewish men that day to form a minyan, Jonathan Shiff felt that he could not recite the Jewish prayer of mourning, the Kaddish. Instead, he adapted the prayer for the soldiers of the Israeli Defence Forces, the El Maaleh Rachamim, and chanted it in English, on behalf of all soldiers who fell fighting the Nazis.
When asked why they made this trip for a relative they never knew, Jonathan replied that he felt a duty to do for Harry what the fallen soldier’s own parents and siblings never managed to do: visit his grave.
“Even though he wasn’t our father or grandfather, and in a sort of bizarre kind of way, Elliott and I both feel like we know him really well, and so being on this trip for us was to honour him and to sort of be there for him,” Jonathan explained.
- Hear the Shiff brothers at the memorial services in this interview with The CJN Daily podcast, with Ellin Bessner
The importance of memory
Elliott thinks his grandmother couldn’t make the trip and maybe didn’t want to, because losing her baby brother was too painful.
“I was thinking a lot on the trip, and since, about the significance of memory. Does it matter to him? Does it matter to be remembered, that we did this?” Jonathan asked. “It feels like it does. It feels like it does. Maybe somewhere he knows that we did this. And also, I think, for us and our children, I think it’s important that he be remembered, his sacrifice be remembered.”
In the ensuing years since the discovery of the letters, the Shiffs have had them all transcribed. And Elliott’s daughter Carly has done a photography project with them. There’s even talk of trying to turn it all into a book, or a screenplay.
It would be the story of a man who left for war a little rough around the edges, but then, according to Jonathan, earned admiration from his men. Harry was killed as a hero, rescuing one of his men under fire.
“And so I think in addition to the family interests, which we have, there’s a universal story here about this man, how he developed, how the war changed him and how he really evolved and how the best parts of his personality came out in that hell over there in Europe.”
Ed. Note: While the Canadian military spelled his name Bockner, the family spells the name Bochner.