Capturing My Dad’s Story

Throughout our lives, my older brother David and I grew up hearing snippets of my father’s wartime experiences. Fascinated by these stories, I thought they should be documented and preserved. I did keep playing my blues guitar but I stopped my corporate work, sold my condo in Toronto and moved in with my father and step mother Heather (In Ottawa).

While living with my father, I spent months interviewing him to ferret out the complete story. I talked with my father regularly over several months taping Dad’s answers to systematic questions. At the end, the tapes traced my father’s life before, during, and after the war. These tapes and the resulting transcriptions formed the bases of my manuscript.

Just prior to World War II, My father, Josef Israel Halpern was a bright, athletic schoolboy in Wladimir Wolynsk, Poland, a half-Jewish community. He grew up in a privileged home against the backdrop of heated discussions of the Torah (with my great grandfather, a popular and well-published rabbi), wonderful cooking, laughter, and strong family ties.

Then Germany attacked Poland in the fall of 1939. Within days, Soviet Russia invaded, and Poland disappeared. Its western region became part of Germany, and Dad’s Bug River area had been annexed to western Ukraine and had become Russian territory.

At first, Josef and his friends reveled in newfound freedom: no more curfews, no more visible anti-Semitism, no more censure of unwed pregnancy (more comrades for the nation). Stalin’s Russia seemed like a welcome motherland. Sixteen-year-old Josef, and four other boys, were soon recruited by a Russian air force commander and began training in gliders. “I supposed we were picked, because we all had good marks in school—especially in technical subjects like math and physics—and it was no coincidence that all five of us were in very good physical shape.”

Dad turned his athleticism and intelligence into a brilliant career as a fighter pilot. He cheated death numerous times—by going for a smoke just before his comrades were felled by a bomb; by being able to fix motors when sent to Siberia (and not being on “the list”); by shirking his status as a “hero of the Soviet Union” and holder of four Red Stars for bravery; and making his way to Canada and a new life. He survived by doing things of which he was not proud, while retaining his humanity and his loyalty to and love of family and his first love Isabelle.

By the end of the war, only five Jewish people from Wladimir Wolynsk survived; one of them was my Dad. After a stint in a displaced persons’ camp, Dad immigrated to Canada, entering the country through Halifax and onward by train to Montreal where he later re-united with the father and mother he had presumed dead.—and later settling in Ottawa/Hull .

As a Canadian, Josef Halpern became a noted member of the Jewish community in Ottawa/Hull. His death on August 15, 2011 resulted in an extended news-obituary in the Ottawa Citizen, which was picked up by Postmedia newspapers across the country.