Despite being underage, Alex Polowin joined the navy after hearing about his mother’s family being murdered in the Holocaust.
By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel
Alex Polowin of Ottawa still wasn’t 18 when he joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1942, determined to do something and fight back after learning that his mother’s family had been murdered in the Holocaust, the Canadian Jewish News reported Monday.
While Polowin already has a chestful of military medals, the 96-year-old retired insurance agent was awarded Canada’s highest honor for his volunteer work, which as fate would have it started long after he took off his wartime navy uniform for good.
“I used to watch my mother cry when she’d get the news, and that was after the war had started, that brothers, sisters were murdered and other relatives [during the German occupation of Lithuania] and I watched her cry and it had an impact on me – very much so,” Polowin said in a wartime testimony posted online. “And then I began to think of what I could do to help the war effort, what could I do, I was too young to get in the military at that point.”
In 1942, at only 17, Polowin lied about his age, enlisted in the navy and spent the next three years on Canadian warships fighting in the North Atlantic chasing Nazi battleships, escorting convoys and battling German destroyers trying to interrupt the D-Day landings.
Released from service at only 20 years old, he returned to Ottawa, married and raised three children, but in 1995, after his son Howard died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 40, the grieving father dedicated himself to volunteer work.
“He started to volunteer to give back to society in memory of my late father,” said Howard’s daughter Lily Polowin, 33, and her grandfather has now volunteered for 25 straight years with the Tamir Foundation in Ottawa, which assists disabled Jewish youth and adults, and also volunteers at St. Patrick’s, an Ottawa long-term care facility.
The World War II veteran has also visited countless schools, retirement residences, and nursing homes to talk about his war experiences, speaking to audiences as far away as France and Holland. He is know for always closing his talks by singing a wartime song, and playing a tune for them on his harmonica.
“It’s people, kindness, love and friendship that helped me make it to this point,” Polowin said. “Hopefully it’s going to keep me remaining happy and trying to do it for as long as I can.”
Aside from his war medals, the Russian government awarded him a medal for serving on HMCS Huron during the treacherous and frigid Murmansk convoy runs, where Allied destroyers escorted supply convoys from northern Scotland to Russian Arctic sea ports.
The French government bestowed the Legion d’Honneur on Polowin for helping to keep the English Channel clear in the lead up to and on D-Day. The Juno Beach Museum in Normandy recently sent Polowin a full-sized Canadian flag that had flown over the landing sites where 14,000 Canadians scrambled ashore on June 6, 1944.
Due to the pandemic, Polowin’s regular in-person speaking engagements were all cancelled last year, but recently he has started using Zoom to share his message, with the technical help of his grandson Aaron.
And Polowin, who turns 97 on May 15, also has a street named after him in Canada’s capital.
“Mr. Polowin, through your efforts you have demonstrated your compassion and your devotion to your community,” said the head of Canada’s Supreme Court, Justice Richard Wagner, during the live virtual presentation ceremony of “The Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers” – the highest honor for volunteer service in Canada. “Thank you for the tremendous work you continue to do to promote peace and commemoration,” Wagner said.
Although the ceremony was held on Zoom, the medal had been delivered in advance and was pinned on Polowin’s chest by his grandson, the CJN reported.
“This is one of the greatest days of my life,” Polowin remarked, calling on his family to keep volunteering. “I know that the calendar creeps up on you and you can’t have [the medal] as long as they can, so I’m happy…that it’s going to continue on and they’re going to continue to do community work,” he said.
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