Nearly Courtmartialed For Refusing Non-Kosher Food: 99-Yr-Old D-Day Veteran Reminisces War Events


NEW YORK (VINnews) — One of the few remaining D-Day survivors silhouetted on the 80th anniversary of the amphibious invasion last week is Mervyn Kersh, a 99-year-old Jewish veteran.

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Kersh’s steadfast commitment to his faith during World War II is quite notable. As a young soldier in the British Army, Kersh faced more than just the enemy; he also confronted his own commanders over his refusal to eat non-kosher food. Defiance nearly led to his detention, as his commander suspected him of trying to weaken himself to avoid combat.

Kersh, then just 19, explained his adherence to kosher laws, ultimately convincing the officer of his dedication to fighting Nazis. Consequently, Kersh was spared a court martial and subsisted largely on canned fruits throughout the war.

“I told the officer that avoiding the fight was the last thing on my mind,” Kersh recounted in a blog for war veterans. “I explained kosher laws for an hour. My conviction won him over, and the trial was canceled.”

The former private with 17 Vehicle Company, Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC), who joined the British Army at the age of 18 in 1943, had assumed he would join the Royal Engineers as his hobby was map-drawing.

However, due to what he was told was a clerical error, Mr Kersh’s military role became to supply weapons, ammunition and equipment to the British Army.

Three days after the Normandy Landings on June 6, 1944, he and his fellow soldiers stepped ashore in sector Jig on Gold Beach as planned.

What he saw and heard immediately brought home the brutal reality of what the soldiers had faced.

In the midst of chaos and fear, a small book brought the young soldier hope.

He said: “You heard the shells going over from the land and the big ships firing these huge shells back.

“It was then I began to realise that it was war and not an adventure or a practice and what might happen.

“And I did get frightened. That’s when I read my Book of Psalms.”

Mr Kersh had been given a pocket-sized Book of Psalms before D-Day and the soldier found its presence comforting.

Reading from his book, he said: “My adversaries are all before me and before thee.

“Reproach of broken hearts and broken my heart.

“I’m so sick and I looked for some to show compassion, but there was none.”

Kersh recently revisited France for the 80th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, a pivotal battle that signaled the beginning of the end for Nazi dominance in Europe.

Growing up in a Jewish family in South London, Kersh had dual motivations to combat Hitler’s forces. Beyond the direct threat to Britain and the bombings that claimed nearly 30,000 lives in London, there was a profound awareness of the Nazis’ genocidal campaign against Jews across Europe. “We knew about the atrocities, but not the full extent. We knew about the gas chambers, the shootings, and the hangings,” Kersh reflected.

This dire knowledge spurred British Jews to enlist in significant numbers during the war. Statistics reveal that around 70,000 Jews, or 18% of the Jewish population in the UK, served in the British Forces, compared to 11% of the general population.

Kersh’s wartime duties involved ensuring a steady flow of vehicles, from motorcycles to massive tank carriers, to support British Army units headed to Berlin. As he traversed Europe, he witnessed the devastating impact of the war on Jewish communities. The liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on April 15, 1945, revealed about 60,000 emaciated prisoners and thousands of unburied corpses.

Stationed nearby weeks later, Kersh visited the camp but was barred from entering due to the rampant typhus infection. Outside the gates, he encountered skeletal former prisoners still clad in their camp uniforms. In an effort to help, Kersh distributed chocolate collected from fellow soldiers, a gesture that brought joy to the survivors but later haunted him. “I later learned that giving chocolate to starving people was the worst thing to do. How many died because of it? I don’t know. But I didn’t know that at the time,” he lamented.

Kersh found that the survivors were unanimously determined to move to Israel, not a single one wishing to return to their former homes in Europe. “They were Jews and wanted to live in a Jewish state,” Kersh said, recalling the small Zionist flag he wore on his lapel with pride.

His desire to join the Jewish Brigade notwithstanding, Kersh was too young, as only those over 23 were eligible. In recent years, he has shared his story with schools and community organizations, emphasizing the dangers of antisemitism and the importance of standing up to tyrants.

In his blog, Kersh recounted a poignant meeting with two Jewish brothers who survived the Nazi regime after their parents were murdered. “The language barrier limited what I learned about their suffering before they escaped Germany. The Germans took their older family members, and they never saw them again,” he recalled.

Reflecting on D-Day, Kersh remembered the anticipation of the Allied invasion and the inspiration drawn from the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto. “Their fight against the Germans inspired every Jew worldwide. It was the first massive resistance in Europe and lasted much longer than the German high command expected,” he said.

Kersh also recounted a Rosh Hashanah prayer organized by military rabbi Dr. Louis Rabinowitz in 1944, attended by Jewish soldiers and two Jews who had been hiding for years. “One had spent almost the entire time in a wardrobe, the other in an attic. They spoke Yiddish, and it was translated for hundreds of soldiers from several Allied countries,” he said.

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Steve B
Steve B
8 days ago

I relative of mine arrived on Omaha beach DDay+1. Fought all the way through the battle of the bulge where he was wounded. Moved to EY in the 70’s. When I was in Yeshiva I would frequently visit him. He had amazing stories.

8 days ago

Yesh koneh olamo b’sha’ah achas. What an inspiration. Mi k’amcha yisrael!