Ottawa Jewish war veteran awarded Canada’s Sovereign Medal for Volunteers

Alex Polowin
Ottawa veteran Alex Polowin in his apartment, wearing the Sovereign Medal for Volunteers pinned to the left side of his blazer, during a virtual presentation ceremony Friday April 23, 2021. Photo by Aaron Polowin

Ottawa – Alex Polowin already has a chestful of military medals. Plus, as one of Canada’s remaining veterans of the Second World War, there is a street named after him in Barrhaven, an Ottawa suburb.  But on April 23, the retired insurance salesman, 96, was awarded Canada’s highest honour for his volunteer work, which he started long after he took off his wartime navy uniform for good.

“Mr. Polowin, through your efforts you have demonstrated your compassion and your devotion to your community,” said the Rt. Hon. Richard Wagner, during a live virtual presentation ceremony Friday.

Wagner, the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, is serving in place of the Governor General, following the resignation of Julie Payette in January. Payette quit after a damning report into allegations of employee harassment.

The Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers is the highest honour for volunteer service that an individual can receive within the Canadian Honours System,” explained Lynne Santerre, who works with the Governor General’s staff in Ottawa.

The medal itself shows the Queen on the front, with two interlaced hearts on the reverse side, symbolizing caring and generosity, according to the official description.

In keeping with COVID protocols, the Governor General’s office arranged for the medal to be delivered to Polowin’s Riverside Drive apartment. On Friday, grandson Aaron Polowin, who teaches French at Ottawa’s Jewish Community School, physically pinned the medal on his grandfather’s blue blazer, during the online ceremony.

“This is one of the greatest days of my life,” Polowin said, adding that the award is an incentive for his family to follow his example.

“I know that the calendar creeps up on you and you can’t have [the medal] as long as they can, so I’m happy…that it’s going to continue on and they’re going to continue to do community work,” he said.

Lied about his age to enlist

It was actually Polowin’s grandson together with former Alberta MP David Kilgour, now a human rights campaigner, who put Alex’s name forward for the award. The Governor General’s office released a list of 141 Canadians to win the Sovereign’s Medal on April 21.

“Thank you for the tremendous work you continue to do to promote peace and commemoration,” Wagner told Polowin.

In 1942, Polowin enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy after learning the fate of his mother’s brothers in Lithuania, who did not escape the Holocaust. Lying about his age to get in at just 17, Polowin served as an able seaman on three warships overseas.

When Polowin returned to Ottawa, he married his first wife Phyllis, and raised three children. In 1995, after Polowin’s son Howard died suddenly at the age of 40 of a heart attack while jogging, the grieving father dedicated himself to volunteer work.

“He started to volunteer to give back to society in memory of my late father,” said Lily Polowin, 33, who works with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in Ottawa.

Volunteered for Tamir Foundation

Polowin has now volunteered for 25 years with the Tamir Foundation in Ottawa, which assists disabled Jewish youth and adults. He’s done fundraising and organized events for them, as well as for the residents and staff at St. Patrick’s, an Ottawa long term care facility.

Polowin has visited countless schools, retirement residences, and nursing homes to talk about his war experiences. For the last fifteen years, he has been a sought-after speaker for Historica Canada’s Memory Project. His audiences in Canada, France and even Holland are usually captivated by the sprightly senior’s message of trying to solve problems without violence. He always closes his talks by singing a wartime song, and playing a tune for them on his harmonica.

“One of the great gifts that you give to Canada is that you’re a great storyteller and a raconteur,” said his friend Chuck Redstone during a private virtual reception for friends and family after the ceremony.

Redstone is a former naval officer and now a federal civil servant with Infrastructure Canada who met Polowin during his department’s Remembrance Day ceremonies in 2014.

“You walk on a noble path,” he told him.

Watch Alex Polowin play harmonica for the Ottawa Jewish Historical Society in February 2021

Needs new harmonica

Polowin’s birthday, his 97th, is on May 15.

“It’s people, kindness, love and friendship that helped me make it to this point,” Polowin said. “Hopefully it’s going to keep me remaining happy and trying to do it for as long as I can.”

Polowin has received countless honours. Aside from his Second World War service medals, the Russian government awarded him a medal for serving on HMCS Huron during the treacherous and frigid Murmansk convoy runs, where Allied destroyers escorted supply convoys from northern Scotland to Russian Arctic sea ports.

The French government bestowed the Legion d’honneur on Polowin for helping to keep the English Channel clear in the lead up to and on D-Day. The Juno Beach Museum in Normandy recently sent Polowin a full-sized Canadian flag that had flown over the landing sites where 14,000 Canadians scrambled ashore on June 6, 1944.

That flag will be on display in the lobby of Polowin’s condominium during the first week of June, as part of a larger D-Day anniversary showcase.

Due to the pandemic, Polowin’s regular in-person speaking engagements were all cancelled last year, but recently he has started using Zoom to share his message, with the technical help of his grandson Aaron.

The one thing Polowin would really like to be able to do, while he waits for his second COVID vaccine shot, is to find a way to source a new harmonica.

“The notes get separated, and you can’t get into a store to buy one,” he lamented.

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