A life in pictures: the story of an English GI

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A life in pictures: the story of an English GI

Jonathan Sandler felt that the story of his grandfather’s extraordinary wartime experience had to be told, in the most unusual way

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

New York. City of dreams. But not if you were stranded there on a school trip in 1939.

This happened to the late Bernard Sandler and now his grandson, Jonathan, has turned this wartime experience in the Big Apple into a graphic novel.

Jonathan who lives in Golders Green, hired American artist Brian Bicknell to work with him on a book that would illustrate the story of 17-year-old Bernard, whose fate was determined by his concerned Jewish parents, who felt it was safer for him to stay in NYC with family friends than to remain at home in Yorkshire. Then Pearl Harbour was bombed.

Old enough to be conscripted, Bernard was called up to the US army in 1943 and became an English GI.

“That was quite unusual,” says Jonathan, a member of Dunstan Road synagogue. “My grandfather trained for 18 months and was then shipped off to war in August 1944 as part of the 26th Division.

The convoy of 100 ships that sailed from New York arrived in Cherbourg and spent a month in Normandy before joining up with General Patton’s Third Army and witnessing brutal fighting in the Lorraine campaign.

Injured within weeks, Bernard was evacuated to an American field hospital in Dorset and finally reunited with his parents after almost five years.

“As emotional as the reunion was, he still had to go back to the US,” explains Jonathan. “But he did propose to my grandmother there and came back to Britain in 1946 to run the family business in Leeds.”

Using Bernard’s memoirs to tell the tale, Jonathan also had a sketchbook by fellow soldier Victor Lundy who had drawn scenes of the voyage to France.

Rosh Hashanah in Normandy features in the graphic novel, depicted as the improvised celebration that it was, and there is also a nod to a Jewish soldier’s anxiety about being captured with ‘H’ for Hebrew on his ID tag.

“We also put in my grandfather’s moving visit to Latvia in 1937 to see his father’s birthplace, “This was a risky and frightening journey, given that they were a Jewish father and son travelling by train en route through Nazi Germany.”

New York clearly had its influence on young Bernard – he co-founded the Leeds Playhouse, produced plays, moved to London and became chair of the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, where his memorial was held in 1998. The book, as Jonathan intended, is a moving and long-lasting memorial for his grandfather. But what would Bernard think?

‘I think he would have appreciated the artistic and creative style of the book and, given his theatrical ideas, I definitely think this could work as a play one day.”

Sounds like a job for Jonathan.

The English GI, edited by Jonathan Sandler and illustrated by Brian Bicknell, is published by graphicmemoir.co.uk RRP £9.99

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