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Jewish symbol permitted in Church of England graveyard in exception to rule

08 September 2017

south africa war graves project

Original gravestone: the grave of PO H. Rosofsky with the originally stone erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Original gravestone: the grave of PO H. Rosofsky with the originally stone erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

RELIGIOUS symbols that were primarily indicative of a faith other than Christianity, or of beliefs inconsistent with those of the Church of England as enshrined in its doctrines, would not ordinarily be permitted on a monument in an Anglican churchyard, irrespective of the beliefs of the deceased person or those responsible for the deceased’s burial. But, very rarely, there might be exceptional circumstances that justified a departure from that principle.

There were such exceptional circumstances in the case of the burial, in the opening days of the Second World War, of a young South African airman of Jewish descent, the Chancellor of the diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Worshipful David Etherington QC, ruled when granting a faculty for an image of the cross on a headstone to be replaced with a Star of David.

Pilot Officer (PO) Harold Rosofsky came to England, aged 23, in 1936, and joined the Royal Air Force. On 8 September 1939, aged 26, he set off on a mission. The aircraft fell from the air over Berners Heath before it had left Suffolk, killing PO Rosofsky and all his crew.

The RAF arranged their burials. All were interred in consecrated ground in the churchyard of All Saints’, in the parish of Honington, in separate but adjacent plots. There are 61 war- and service-graves in that churchyard, owing to its proximity to RAF Honington.

When the war ended, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) began the process of permanently marking the war graves in the churchyard. In 1945, the CWGC wrote to PO Rosofsky’s family, but received no response. A reminder was sent in 1946, and again there was no response.

The CWGC erected a standard-pattern headstone on the grave, including an engraving of a cross, in accordance with the procedure when no other belief had been confirmed.

That headstone remained until 2015, when the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, as well as PO Rosofsky’s family, contacted the CWGC to say that he was Jewish, and that they wanted the image of the Star of David engraved on his memorial.

The DAC was of the unanimous opinion that the inscription of the Star of David would not be inappropriate in an Anglican cemetery, because both the Christian faith and the Jewish faith were monotheistic, placing their faith and hope in the same Godhead; the faith of Judaism was encapsulated in the Old Testament, which was an integral part of the accepted biblical canon of the Christian faith, which was a direct inheritor of much of the messianic theology of the Old Testament.

Although the DAC’s advice was helpful, the Chancellor said, he had concluded that the Star of David would not generally be an appropriate symbol to be inscribed on a monument in a churchyard under the jurisdiction of the Consistory Court, and he would not ordinarily permit it. But, notwithstanding that general principle, the question was whether the image requested would be justified, exceptionally, by the particular facts of this case.

There was much that might never be known: the precise employment and family dynamics that caused PO Rosofsky to come to England; whether he had any particularly strong faith or much interest in religion at all; and his own wishes about burial, if he gave any thought to it. He died intestate, and left no written indication of his wishes.

Jewish servicemen could, with full permission, disguise officially the fact that they were Jewish, because of what might happen in the Second World War if they were captured and the fact of their Jewish faith or descent was known to their captors.

It remained puzzling why PO Rosofsky’s family did not contact the CWGC when written to in 1945 and 1946, and why things had remained as they had for so long. The reality now was that many of the facts that could have been made known or investigated at the time were probably lost.

The Chancellor said that “no one could have anything but the utmost admiration and respect for” PO Rosofsky, and, when he came to England and joined the RAF, he had the expectation of a full life-span. That was denied him. The reality was, the Chancellor said, that he and his family had no choice over where he was buried, and there was something deeply moving in the fact that he now lay in a churchyard near to his base and next to his crew, who died with him, as he had done since September 1939.

The Chancellor concluded that an exception should be made, in the specific circumstances of this case, to the general principle about images on monuments in Anglican churchyards within the diocese. PO Rosofsky flew his aircraft in defence of this country, and his family had had no say in where he was buried.

There were radical departures from the circumstances that normally pertained to someone’s burial in a churchyard. Not only were they not his fault, but his death was as an airman fighting for this country in a war, and in circumstances where the ordinary way of communicating one’s religion might have been affected by the need not to allow any potential captor to discover the truth. Those were highly exceptional features.

It was not known how much it would have meant to PO Rosofsky to have had the Star of David on his monument. But the Chancellor accepted that he was of the clearest Jewish descent, and, doubtless, had been brought up in the Jewish faith, and that the placing of the Star of David on his monument mattered to his family.

Another way of looking at it, the Chancellor said, was that if anyone were to ask why one monument in this particular churchyard bore the Star of David, he or she could be told PO Rosofsky’s story: how he was one of the first Jewish airmen in the RAF, and might even be the first to have died in the Second World War, and how he came to be buried there. The listener would, no doubt, understand why that exception had been made.

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