Saving Sgt. Hurwitz: Historians work to rescue a Canadian war hero from obscurity

For Sgt. Samuel Moses "Moe" Hurwitz — one of the most decorated Jewish-Canadian soldiers of the Second World War — the fight was something deeply personal.

Canadians volunteered to fight for many reasons, but did Moe Hurwitz fight to avenge his captured brother?

Sgt. Samuel Moses "Moe" Hurwitz stands for the camera in Holland during the late days of the Second World War. Sgt. Hurwitz went to Europe in the summer of 1944 knowing that his brother was a prisoner of the Germans. (The Hurwitz family)

By all accounts, Sgt. Samuel Moses "Moe" Hurwitz was a one-man army. 

For Hurwitz, as for many Canadians, the war was deeply personal. The Montreal native went into Normandy in the summer of 1944 distraught over the plight of his younger brother Harry, who had been captured by the Germans when the Canadian destroyer HMCS Athabaskan was sunk a few weeks before the D-Day invasion.

A member of the Canadian Grenadier Guards (22nd Canadian Armoured Regiment) tank regiment, Moe Hurwitz fought major actions in France and Holland until, wounded and captured, he died in a German military hospital in October 1944. 

Awarded the Military Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal, Hurwitz, 25, was one of the most decorated Jewish-Canadian soldiers of the Second World War.

But outside of a select community of historians and soldiers, his compelling story of courage, love and loyalty has been largely forgotten today.

'He was the original'

"I keep telling people my uncle was Rambo before they ever had the movie Rambo," said Debbie Hurwitz, Harry's daughter and Moe's niece. "He was the original."

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The story of Sgt. Moe Hurwitz is being given new life by the team of researchers, historians and programmers behind Project 44.

The original intent of the project was to digitally map the movements of Canada's military units during the D-Day invasion. Thanks to federal funding and enthusiastic supporters, the project has expanded. Using archival maps, battle diaries and geomapping technology, Project 44 has now catalogued the Canadian campaigns in Northwest Europe and Italy.

Sgt. Samuel Moses "Moe" Hurwitz in England in 1944. (The Hurwitz family)

More importantly, the team has started using those digital maps to tell the stories of individual soldiers like Hurwitz — where they went, what they did, how they lived and died — in a manner that could shape the way future generations of Canadians remember the war.

"We're trying to put these sacrifices back on the map and to put them in more of a technologically friendly platform," said Drew Hannen, a co-founder of Project 44 whose grandfather served with Hurwitz and later helped to set up a memorial to his memory.

A 'fearless leader'

The sergeant's mess at the Grenadier Guards' armoury in Montreal is a bit of a shrine to Hurwitz, but the quest to rescue his story from obscurity stretches back several years to the research journalist and author Ellin Bessner assembled for her book Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II.

She came across an old pamphlet, written just after the war in 1946, which told the stories of Jewish-Canadian war heroes.

"And Mo's story takes up seven pages, which is the most of anyone in that book," said Bessner. "I had never heard of him, even though I grew up in Montreal."

Watch | Author Ellin Bessner on Hurwitz's background and the sacrifices he made for his country:

Hurwitz could have chosen the NHL

2 years ago
Duration 0:53
Author and journalist Ellin Bessner explains Moe Hurwitz's background and the sacrifices he made for his country.

She said that when she read the account of how he won his medals, she was hooked.

"I thought about the movie 'Fury' with Brad Pitt," she said, referring to the 2014 Hollywood drama depicting an American tank crew fighting desperate battles in a nearly-defeated Germany during the final days of the war. "Brad Pitt was a fearless leader. This is what Moe did. This is what Moe was."

Wounded and still fighting

As the Normandy campaign was grinding to a close and the Allies encircled the German Army in France, Canadian soldiers advanced to the Falaise Road. Hurwitz was second-in-command of a troop of Sherman tanks that assaulted the enemy flank, tearing open a one-kilometre hole in the German lines at the village of Cintheaux, on August 4, 1944.

Faced with anti-gun positions and infantry, Hurwitz dismounted and attacked on foot. A burning German self-propelled artillery gun blew up. The explosion killed one Canadian, wounded a number of others and pinned Hurwitz under a fallen tree.

Burned and slightly wounded, Hurwitz wriggled free and then picked up a Bren gun to continue the assault.

In the end, 11 German anti-tank guns were destroyed. Fifteen Germans were killed, 31 others captured.

Canadian Sherman tanks, belonging to the Canadian Grenadier Guards regiment, move into position for attack toward Falaise, between Hubert-Folie and Tilly-la-Campagne, August 8th, 1944. (National Archives of Canada)

For his heroism, Hurwitz was awarded the Military Medal.

Six weeks later, during the Battle of Scheldt in the Netherlands, Hurwitz dismounted once again and led an attack on foot in the community of Philippine. Armed only with a pistol, he and two other Canadians attacked two German machine gun positions and captured 25 German soldiers before knocking out an 88mm anti-tank gun.

A personal war

For that action, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the second-highest decoration a non-commissioned officer could receive at the time.

There was a ferocity to the way Hurwitz fought which made an impression on his fellow soldiers that lasted long after the war ended.

"My father feels that Mo attempted to take on the whole German army to get to his little brother," said Debbie Hurwitz. "He was worried my father would be tortured because my father was the only Jewish sailor aboard his ship."

Watch | Debbie Hurwitz recounts her grandfather's sorrow at the loss of his son:

A father's pain

2 years ago
Duration 1:02
Debbie Hurwitz - Moe Hurwitz's niece - recounts her grandfather's sorrow at the loss of his son.

Leading Seaman Harry Hurwitz was in a German prisoner of war camp while his brother was tearing his way through France and Holland, but had not been singled out by the Nazis, said his daughter. The German guards — many of them veterans of the Great War — kept his secret and treated him like all of the other captives.

A month after the battle in Phillipine, Sgt. Hurwitz led a night attack against the elite German 6th Parachute Division near Bergen-op-Zoom in the Netherlands on Oct. 24, 1944.

Surrounded by anti-tank guns and cut off from support, his Sherman tank continued to fight until it was knocked out. Hurwitz and the rest of his five-man crew were wounded and captured.

Four days later, Moe Hurwitz died in a German military hospital at Dordrecht in the Netherlands.

Pride and grief

Neither the regiment nor his brother Harry learned of his fate until just after the war.

"Losing his brother Moe was the worst thing that happened to him during the war," Debbie said of her father. "He was so proud of his brother and so completely devastated when he found out that his brother had died.

"My father was a prisoner of war. He did not know his brother died until he got back to England from Germany and ran into some people in Moe's company in his regiment. And my father took it very, very badly and never spent a day without mourning his brother."

When Moe Hurwitz's bravery medals were returned to the family, Debbie said, her grandfather simply remarked that he wanted his son back. There were 13 children in the Hurwitz family originally and while many of them served and made it home, Moe's loss was keenly felt.

Watch | Honorary Lt.-Col. describes Hurwitz in battle:

Honorary Lt.-Col. describes Hurwitz in battle

2 years ago
Duration 1:13
Canadian Grenadier Guards Honorary Lt.-Col. Paul de B. Taillon describes the courage and audacity of Moe Hurwitz in battle.

His regiment continued to honour him for many years but memories faded with the passage of time. Even the honorary colonel of the Canadian Grenadier Guards — Paul de B Taillon, a lifetime reserve officer and public servant — had only a vague knowledge of Moe Hurwitz's story before he joined the regiment a few years ago.

He has since come to know the story chapter and verse.

"True courage is a word I would use," said Taillon, who added it's unfortunate how little Canadians seem to know of their military history.

"We are essentially a warrior society that is sublime, quite frankly. And in doing so ... we forget [who] are our heroes, truly."

'Worthy of the highest honours'

Debbie Hurwitz said some of the soldiers who served with her uncle believe he should have been awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for battlefield bravery.

"It was my father's greatest hope that his brother be awarded the Victoria Cross before he died," she said.

"My father passed away last year at the age of 99, and he was lucid until the end, and one of the things he spoke about last was his late brother, Moe, and how he is worthy of the highest honours that can be awarded."

She said the soldiers she spoke with said they believed Moe Hurwitz was denied the honour because he was Jewish. She said she doesn't necessarily believe that — but many of the men who served with Hurwitz did.

A detail of a recruitment poster for the Canadian Grenadier Guards (22nd Canadian Armoured Regiment). (Honourary Colonel Paul de B Taillon)

Giving Moe Hurwitz's story a new life has been deeply satisfying for Hannen, who said he believes the project has in many ways brought him closer to the Guards officer grandfather he never knew.

It has also given him a unique personal appreciation for the awful choices the war generation had to make.

As the war got underway, Moe Hurwitz, a rugged young athlete, was scouted by the Boston Bruins for a career in the National Hockey League.

"Mo had a very promising career as an amateur hockey player and almost made it pro and he decided that he wanted to go serve his country," said Hannen.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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