Former fighter pilot 'never showed fear'

Shot down four times in the war, he later defected from the Russians, then sneaked back into the U.S.S.R. to bring out his future wife

Ari Altstedter, Ottawa Citizen; Postmedia News
Published: Sunday, October 02 2011

On June 22, 1941, 16-year-old Joseph Halpern kissed Isabelle, his girlfriend, good night and went home to bed. A few hours later he awoke to the sound of artillery fire.
Joseph was one of six boys from Wladimir Wolynsk, a half-Jewish town on the Soviet side of occupied Poland, whom the Soviet authorities had flagged for air force training if the Germans attacked. The artillery fire meant training was about to begin and Joseph set off right away. He would never see Isabelle again.
Save for five people, the entire Jewish community of Wladimir Wolynsk was liquidated. That night left Joseph Halpern with two things: a score to settle with the Germans, and an aching memory of his first love that would last the rest of his life.

He died in Ottawa this summer. For most of his life he wouldn't speak of his experiences in the Russian army. He wasn't proud of some of the things he did. But from the scraps picked up by his family over the years, and a series of interviews conducted in the last year of his life by his son George, a remarkable story of love, and revenge, emerges.

Joseph and Isabelle had known each other their entire lives. Their grandmothers were best friends and their families' businesses were entwined. Both top students, they competed with each other in school, and played practical jokes on one another in their spare time.

"He would have married her," said Heather Pigden-Halpern, Joseph's partner in Ottawa for 41 years. "He felt she was his soulmate."

When reports reached the Russian lines of Jews being massacred in German-occupied territory, fear for his family, and Isabelle, awakened hatred for the enemy in Joseph. He threw himself into the war with a fanatic's passion. He was tasked with flying fighter planes left over from the Spanish Civil War against the faster, more powerful German Messerschmitts. The Russians often got the worst of these encounters, but Joseph would always volunteer for more missions, no matter how dangerous they were. He was shot down four times, but he kept volunteering.
"What he said to me, at the end of the war, was that he didn't kill enough of them," said his son George.

Eventually Joseph was inducted into the Russian special forces, and dispatched behind enemy lines to deliver radios to the Russian and Polish resistance, or to assassinate enemy commanders.
One of the few war stories he shared with his sons was from one of these missions. Walking in a wooded area dressed as a civilian, Joseph ran into a group of German officers, all drunk. The Germans began harassing him. Eventually they used his belt to tie him to a tree and used him as target practice. Joseph only escaped after pretending he was hit and playing dead.
What he never told anyone until very late in life, during the interviews with George, was that after the Germans left him for dead he completed his mission, finding the partisans and delivering the radio.
Then he went a step further: he recruited the resistance fighters for a mission of his own. That night he led a group of partisans to where the German officers were billeted. They killed them all, except the one who had done the shooting. Joseph led him into the woods.
George said that's where his father ended the story.
"He said, 'I'm not going to tell you what happened next. I'm not proud of it. He didn't die well.' "
After the war, Halpern, now a captain, returned to Wladimir Wolynsk to have his worst fears confirmed. He found out Isabelle had been shipped off to a concentration camp after being informed on by a Polish neighbour. He later admitted to his partner, Heather, that he found the informer and killed him.

Though Joseph never forgave the people he held responsible for the massacre of his community, he told Heather he wasn't proud of the way he got revenge: "He would say to me, 'if you knew everything, you probably wouldn't want to be with me.' "
Still in the Russian air force after the war, Halpern became the personal pilot of a high-ranking Russian general. But dissatisfaction with life under Soviet rule had him thinking about defecting for a number of years. He saw his chance on a mission to Berlin. While the general was occupied in a meeting, Joseph hopped in his plane and flew to the American sector.
But a promise he had made during the war would force him to return to the Soviet Union, and escape a second time. The fourth time he was shot down during combat, he had managed to land near his home airfield. The plane was on fire and about to explode, but Joseph couldn't free himself from the cockpit. He passed out because of the smoke but was saved by a mechanic who had come rushing over. The two became friends and Joseph confided his ambition to defect.
In return for saving his life, the mechanic made Joseph promise to take his daughter, Sophie, with him when he did.
In Germany, Joe didn't forget his promise. One day he put on his old captain's uniform, and with characteristic nerve, crossed back into the U.S.S.R., collected Sophie, and escorted her back.
Joseph and Sophie were soon married. "He never showed fear," said his son George. "He believed there was a gene that caused people to feel fear, or secrete adrenalin, or whatever. He never had that."

In 1952, Joseph and Sophie arrived in Halifax as refugees and boarded a train to Montreal, where a miraculous surprise awaited them. On his first day in Montreal Joseph visited an office of the Canadian Jewish Congress. The first person he met there was his father. Joseph had believed his parents had perished in the death camps along with his grandparents and Isabelle. In fact, his parents had fled Wladimir Wolynsk only a day after he had left for training, right before the Germans took over. They had made their way to Britain and then Montreal where they had waited out the war, wondering what had become of their only son.

He got a job at RCA Victor before he could even speak English, and the two had five children together. Later, a company transfer meant the family moved to Ottawa, where he got his second PhD at the University of Ottawa.
But the family's home life grew unhappy as Sophie's behaviour became increasingly erratic and abusive. Eventually she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had to be institutionalized.
The family's hardships didn't end there. Two of his children, Anna Lee and Leo, predeceased their father after reaching adulthood.
Despite all the tragedy in his life, Joseph did not pass up the chance for romance when it came again. In 1970, 46-year-old Joseph first saw 20-year-old Heather Pigden at a mutual friend's house. Heather has cerebral palsy and says, at the time, none of her friends thought she was "dating material." Joseph disagreed. For him it was love at first sight and before long the two were inseparable.

Joseph's son David said his father's wartime experiences took something from him, but with Heather he got it back.
Heather and Joseph were together until the day he died on Aug. 15, 2011.