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The last chapter: Jewish girl's bravery adds twist to Pat Bay war story

This tale, the story of the Second World War flyer who died twice — once in Europe, the second time on Vancouver Island — was wild enough in 2017. The plot just took another twist.

This tale, the story of the Second World War flyer who died twice — once in Europe, the second time on Vancouver Island — was wild enough in 2017.

That’s when we told you about the detective work that introduced the dead man’s grandson in B.C. to his living family in New Zealand.

Now, five years later, the plot just took another twist, with the grandson being tracked down by the family of the on-the-run Jewish girl who helped save the flyer from the Nazis.

Oh, and by the way, it turns out she also helped save a Saskatchewan farm boy whose daughter now lives in, of all places, Saanich.

Settle in, dear reader, for a story that sprawls across eight decades and four continents.

The key to it all was the day in 2017 when Victoria retiree Peter Brand got curious while driving down Mills Road in North Saanich.

What caught his attention was some new roadside artwork atop Hospital Hill on the north side of the airport. Having spent much of his life in Indigenous communities, Brand thought the monument’s towering metal feathers might have something to do with First Nations, so he stopped to take a look.

What he had spotted was sculptor Illarion Gallant’s Lost Airmen of the Empire installation, a memorial to the 179 Commonwealth aviators who died while training at the Patricia Bay Air Station during the Second World War. Etched into the feathers were their names and ages. Most, including the brother of future British prime minister Alex Douglas-Home, had been in their teens and early 20s.

After discovering that B.C. Aviation Museum volunteers had been poring over old documents in an attempt to piece together the stories of the all-but-forgotten flyers for a book of remembrance, Australian-born Brand volunteered to research the 15 Aussies and three New Zealanders on the list.

That’s what led him to Flight Sgt. Roy Hodge. Hodge was a New Zealander who, while training in Canada in 1942, had married a Winnipeg girl named Gerry before shipping out to Europe.

That’s where Hodge died the first time. At 1 a.m. on July 4, 1943, a German night fighter ambushed Hodge’s Stirling bomber over Belgium. Hodge, the air gunner/wireless operator, was knocked unconscious but, with the plane ablaze and spinning toward the ground, managed to recover in time to parachute into the blackness. Another man also bailed out, but was captured. The other six on board died.

Authorities thought Hodge was dead, too, so sent his new wife Gerry a telegram to that effect.

Four months later, he appeared in Gibraltar, having been rescued by the Belgian resistance and smuggled across the Pyrenees.

He was then sent to Patricia Bay — Canada’s third-largest wartime airfield — as a trainer. Alas, it was there that the 25-year-old really did lose his life. On St. Patrick’s Day 1944, Hodge was one of three aboard a Dakota that took off from Pat Bay and simply disappeared. Searchers found some oxygen bottles floating near Alert Bay. That was it.

Back in Manitoba, Gerry was told for the second time in a year that her husband was dead. Four months pregnant with daughter Sandy, she had a hard time accepting that he was actually gone.

Nor did she want to talk about it after the war, which is why Sandy’s son George Watson, now of Surrey, grew up knowing little about his extended family.

That changed in 2017, when Brand’s detective work allowed him to not only find Watson but connect him to relatives in New Zealand for the first time. Watson and Brand became good friends, too, and the Surrey man came to Victoria for the dedication of the Lost Airmen memorial.

That’s where things stood until this year when, way off in Israel and New York City, Elsa Leibler’s descendants began retying another broken thread.

Elsa was a Jewish girl from Antwerp, Belgium, whose Second World War life got progressively harder after the Germans invaded in 1940 — she was made to wear a yellow star, forced to ride at the back of the trams and barred from school at age 14.

Eventually her diamond-broker father, who would later hang himself rather than be caught and tortured by the Nazis, paid to have Elsa and her mother smuggled to the part of France not occupied by the Nazis.

Instead, though, they ended up hidden at separate locations, Elsa in Belgium and her mother just over the border in France. At one point, having been abandoned in Brussels, Elsa made contact with the Belgian resistance, which is how in 1943 she crossed paths with Roy Hodge and another downed Allied flyer being smuggled out of Europe on the underground railroad.

Elsa, who spoke English, was the airmen’s translator as they hid out. The just-turned-17-year-old also asked a favour: If they made it back to Allied territory, could they write her sister Sara Salzman in New York to tell her that their dad was dead but their mother and Elsa were in hiding? Elsa told the airmen to memorize her brother-in-law’s business address, 576 Fifth Ave.

So that’s what Hodge did once free, writing to Salzman and her husband. (The New Zealander mixed up the number of the street address, but the U.S. Post Office managed to deliver it to the right destination anyway.)

An exchange of two more letters between Hodge and the Salzmans followed. In one, written while he was at Patricia Bay in February 1944, Hodge expressed his thanks to those who had helped him after he was shot down: “As you guess I am very grateful for what those people did for me as it is to them I owe my freedom.” Six weeks after he wrote that, his Dakota disappeared.

As for Elsa, she was reunited with her mother, the two of them hiding in France, until, with the help of an Alsatian man who hid her true identity, the linguistically talented teen got a job as a bookkeeper for the German overseers paying French factory workers. It was there that she was able to apply an official German stamp to blank documents that she smuggled to the resistance, which used the Ausweises or ID cards to help people evade capture.

Following the war, Elsa ended up in New York, where in 1995, her story was videotaped by the Steven Spielberg-led USC Shoah Foundation. The two-hour recording is sobering: She was among the few in her family to survive the Holocaust. To watch the interview, look up Elsa Leibler on YouTube.

Elsa died 10 years ago, though not before enjoying the satisfaction of seeing the branches of the family tree spread. “Each addition to her large family is, in her eyes, another mark of revenge against Hitler and his plan to eliminate the Jewish people,” said a 2011 story in the Jerusalem Post.

It was after Elsa’s husband died in 2017 that the letters between Hodge and the Salzmans re-emerged, and that her children became curious about the Allied flyers named in them.

This spring, an online search of Hodge’s name led Elsa’s granddaughter Nechama Ovadia, an Israeli lawyer, to the 2017 Times Colonist piece about Hodge and the lost airmen of Pat Bay. In New York, Salzman’s granddaughter Nicky Rubens and her husband Doug Rubens ended up in the same place. That led to Brand, which led to Watson.

At the latter’s urging, Brand then dug into the background of the other downed airman Elsa had helped, Sgt. John O’Leary of the Royal Canadian Air Force. He had been sheltered by the resistance after parachuting from his stricken Halifax bomber 10 days after Hodge’s aircraft was shot down.

Imagine Brand’s surprise when, after casting a net across Canada for O’Leary’s descendants, he discovered the flyer’s daughter Denyse O’Leary lived in Saanich, not terribly far from the Lost Airmen memorial where all this began.

And that’s how, in mid-May, a Zoom call brought together Watson in the Lower Mainland, his cousin Alan Culhane in New Zealand, Brand and Denyse O’Leary on Vancouver Island, Nicky and Doug Rubens in New York City, and Elsa’s children Moshe Leibler, Karen Last and Romy Leibler, plus Ovadia, all in Israel.

Denyse told them of her father, who before the war had eked out a living taking a team of horses wherever there were crops to be harvested, from the Peace River Country to Missouri. Having survived being shot down over Holland, he went on to become a chartered accountant, living until the ripe old age of 99.

His daughter said he was always worried about those who put themselves at risk by sheltering him in Europe. That included Elsa. “She saved his life, and that’s why I’m here,” Denyse said.

Watson spoke of his grandmother’s reluctance to speak about her late husband, Hodge, whose death had left her a pregnant widow. “She just couldn’t bring it up.”

The pain of Hodge’s loss was echoed by Culhane in New Zealand. “It would upset my grandfather to talk about him,” he told the four-country video conference.

In Israel, Last talked about her mother’s post-war empathy, the way she took in penniless Russian immigrants in New York.

The Leibler children all marvelled at the resilience of Elsa, raised in peace and comfort but suddenly thrust into survival mode as a 15-year-old all alone in Brussels. They spoke of the way Elsa and her mother used diamonds concealed inside keys as currency while hiding.

Everyone, all these strangers and near-strangers of disparate backgrounds, scattered around the world, had a thread to add to the tapestry. It was both surreal and wonderful to see them reach back 80 years, to all those tales where courage and loss brought strangers together, to flesh out the stories of each others’ lives.