A trip to Normandy helped Alan Chudnovsky understand his father Hy’s experiences of D-Day

Alan Chudnovsky and family at Juno Beach. (Photo supplied)

Alan Chudnovsky’s late father, Hyman Chudnovsky, served in the Second World War with the Duke of York Royal Canadian Hussars. Alan and his family recently travelled to Normandy to learn more about Hy’s service. In recognition of D-Day, June 6, The CJN is publishing Alan’s essay.

Hy always just said he served with the ‘forward forces.’ I have since learned that meant ‘reconnaissance’ and in practical terms, his job was to seek out and draw enemy fire.

On The Memory Project, a digital archive of Canadians’ experiences in the Second World War, Hy talked about why he enlisted.

“I was motivated to fight because I was a Jew, to fight for equality, against antisemitism and against fascism. To fight against Hitler,”  he said.

My dad landed at Normandy and he went on to fight in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.

Hyman Chudnovsky, shortly after enlisting in 1942. (Credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

In May 2024, my two adult children, their partners, and I went to France, specifically to Normandy, to understand the sacrifices Canadians made in the war.  

We had Colin Taylor as our guide and he shared the story of how The CJN journalist Ellin Bessner worked to change the gravestone of a Jewish soldier who was buried under a cross to a Star of David.

I have no doubt that this soldier was only one of many in military graves with stones that do not tell the whole story.

We toured with a Canadian perspective on history and our guide helped us understand the challenges, the horror, the strategy, the happenstance and most importantly, the humanity.  

We started on the coast and in two days we ended up at Montormel. The battle of Normandy took 77 days.

The first morning we went straight to the beach. Before walking into the stunning and thoughtful Juno Beach Centre, we walked directly past German bunker WN31. My heart was pounding and my kids, none of whom suffer from an inability to express themselves, were noticeably silent.

Many of us in North America have a vague understanding about the Second World War. D-Day, Juno Beach, and Dunkirk were significant names to me but I had never dug into the details to understand them in a more meaningful way. 

Back at the beach, all of my frankly uninformed understanding was getting real. Here we learned about landing craft, radios that didn’t function, weapons that wouldn’t work, drownings, blood-stained clothing, the recognition of landing targets and much more.

I was overcome with emotion when I thought about the abject terror these young people must have felt. My dad always hated the water. He wouldn’t go near it and wouldn’t even joke about his fear of it. I never put two and two together and perhaps there is no equation here. Maybe he just hated the water. Either answer to this question has a horrible answer.

This picture of me and my kids is so special for me. We had no words and there was little sound, except the gentle lapping of the water against the beach. It was a moment of quiet contemplation with the people I love the most, thinking about all those who came before us.    

Next, we visited a military cemetery. My kids, who all in their early 30s, spent a long time reading and looking at the stones of the fallen soldiers. About two hours later, my daughter asked me if I had noticed the ages on all or most of the stones.  She was overwhelmed by the fact that almost all of them were at least 10 years younger than her. “So young, Dad,” she said. “So young.”

My kids and I spoke a lot during the trip and I can confidently say they understand more now about the sacrifices made so long ago by so many.

Military cemetery in Normandy (Credit: Alan Chudnovsky)

My dad passed away at Sunnybrook Hospital in the Veterans Wing. When a vet passes, they do a wonderful little ceremony where the chaplain, with close friends and family present, says a few words and invites anyone else to say a few words as well.

Once everyone is done, the chaplain drapes a Canadian flag over the deceased and the ceremony is concluded. After everyone left the room, I spent a few minutes alone with my dad. When I left, I took the flag. I was unsure if this was permitted or not (it wouldn’t be the first rule I ever broke) but I did it anyway. I had an idea for the flag.

My dad spoke every Nov. 11 at his retirement home and at public schools around Remembrance Day about his time in the service. The only time he broke down or shed tears during his speeches was when he got to the part where he spoke about “his friends who couldn’t come home”.

At Ardenne Abbey, we learned about the massacre of 20 Canadian soldiers by the Nazi SS in June 1944. I looked around outside the abbey and in the courtyard, where there were a few torn and faded Canadian flags that had been there for a long time.

Instantly I knew this would be the place for the flag from Sunnybrook that I have kept since 2019. With tears, my family put up this flag together.

It was important to Hy that the “friends who couldn’t come home”, were always remembered. We will never forget them.

Alan Chudnovsky and family with the Canadian flag that they hung at Ardenne Abbey. (Supplied photo)

On this 80th anniversary of D-Day I reflect that sometimes we get to travel and see the world and learn the hard lessons of history. Sometimes we get to honour the ones who came before us, who made it possible for us to live the lives we do. And sometimes we get to do it all with the people we love and care about the most.