Memories of Ben Linds
by Myron Echenberg
Obituary for Bennie Hymie Linds, as his passport reads.
The following comments will focus on my childhood memories of Uncle Ben, and on his own account of his military experiences during the Second World War.
Born in Montreal 30 Nov. 1924, died 13 March 2015, in Florida in his 91st year .He was the youngest of 2 brothers and 3 sisters, and very much the baby to his siblings and parents Bessie and Louis Linds, working class Jewish immigrants to Canada. Oldest brother Saul had already married and, like his dad Louis, worked in the garment or schmata trade. Sophie, my mother Annie, then Albert and Ada, were all older siblings and gave the baby much love and affection. Ben was 16 when I was born in 1940, and soon after went off to war. He returned in 1946 to live with his parents in Sherbrooke, and because I spent a lot of time at my Grandparents’ home, I have a vivid 6 year old’s memory of Uncle Ben.Ben was a gentle giant, a returning warrior god who could do no wrong. “Benchig”, as our grandma called him, slept in late on weekends, and my sister Hope and I were under strict orders not to disturb him until he rose for his breakfast. He invariably greeted us warmly, no matter how hung over he might have been, and devoted lots of attention to us. Sixty years later, I noticed how much affection Ben and Geraldine devoted to my own granddaughters. Ben’s older sisters and his mother fawned over him, and he grew up to expect, and receive, lots of love from the opposite sex. He learned to be a ladies’ man from an early age , no question.
Ben paid attention to kids and they loved him for it. He had a charismatic personality and a great smile. He was a handsome devil, despite his prominent and bent nose, the product of a family story. Older brother Al was obliged to take little Ben along to play. One day, in a softball game, Ben as catcher got too close to the hitter and ended up being struck flush in the nose, with blood everywhere. Al never forgot the beating he received when the two kids came home, and nobody else in the family did either.
Ben played ping pong, tennis, and softball competitively. I remember going with my Grandpa to watch evening softball in the Sherbrooke industrial league. Ben played the infield with the enthusiasm of a Pete Rose, and the same determination to win at any price. One day, he represented the winning run at 3rd base when his team-mate hit an infield chopper. Ben put his head down and charged home, up ending a burly catcher twice his size, knocking the ball loose and scoring the winning run. A donnybrook ensued but the run stood and Ben was carried around the field as the hero. I was awestruck.
Ben also had time for me at hockey games. He and his buddies had ice level season tickets to the Sherbrooke Saints, who played in the Quebec Provincial League against Three Rivers, Valleyfield and the Quebec Aces, who counted Jean Beliveau among their stars. Ben would take me on Sundays and I would sit on his lap, with permission of the tolerant ownership. There was no glass on the boards, and when there was player contact or shots ricocheting, you had to be very alert. We were never struck by a puck or high stick. Great memories. I kept a scrap-book taken from the Sherbrooke Record and La Tribune. I was proudest of clippings like “Ben Linds Wins E.T. Table Tennis Tourney”.
Time passed, and I grew too big to sit on his knee at hockey games. Ben married Gloria Fine and had two boys, Mitch and David, for whom I occasionally baby sat. I became active in sports, especially golf, which was on sport Ben could not play well. Self- taught in all sports, athletes like Ben did not excel at games that required extensive practice and special techniques. He stayed with tennis, where his unorthodox techniques worked because of his fierce will to win. Yet his great hand eye coordination did work in putting and he enjoyed his skill in pitch and putt right until his final days.
Ben’s competitive determination and his athletic prowess served him well as a Soldier. Ben had hoped to be a pilot but he was found to be colour blind,and instead enlisted in the Army in 1943 at the age of 17. He was part of the Service corps as an infantry replacement, and in England at the beginning of 1944 he was assigned to an Ottawa Regiment , the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, popularly known as the “Plugs”. They were part of the Canadian forces under British General Montgomery which landed at Sicily in February, 1944. There followed seven months of fierce fighting as they advanced slowly up the spine of Italy. The shelling was fierce, the noise terrible, the casualties high. On 27 Sept. 1944, Ben was wounded in the arm by shrapnel from German artillery. The same shell shrapnel struck a buddy named Clearwater, in the leg, and Ben’s commanding officer, Col. Darling, in the stomach. All three were evacuated , and then flown to a hospital in southern Italy run by Canadian and British staff. Ben remembered waking up to see a beautiful nurse,and being attended by Polish doctors, who used a new wonder drug called penicillin. Three months later, he was back in battle near Ravenna. In February 1945, Ben and his fellow soldiers were sent in US landing craft from Italy to Belgium, then joined up with the Canadians assigned to liberate Holland. There is a classic photo in the Plug’s Regimental history showing a triumphant and smiling Sgt. Linds with a cigarette dangling from his mouth from the turret of an armoured vehicle, with hundreds of German prisoners trailing behind. Ben’s fluency in Yiddish could be understood by most Germans and made him an invaluable asset.
Ben remembered being part of a 16 man reconnaissance unit that was the first to reach Amsterdam. There he saw for the first time a gaunt civilian Jew wearing a yellow star. He approached the man and in perfect Yiddish said, “Fatter, sie daft nicht troggen diese stern, nem es arreck”. Old man, you no longer have to wear that star, you may take it off!
Ben remembers the joy of liberation, and VE day, the celebrations and the week’s leave he was able to spend with a beautiful Dutch girl. He would not talk about it but he no doubt saw the newsreels featuring British and American troops liberating the killing camps at Belsen and Auschwitz, and seeing pictures of the starving survivors of these horrible places. A terrible time even in peace, Ben recalled, as he was sent to West Germany, as part of the Occupation Army, serving until his return to Canada and discharge on 25 July 1946.
His time in Occupied Germany was not, unpleasant, however, as his same Col. Darling, recognizing Ben’s athletic prowess, named him Sports Director! His job was to defeat soldiers from other regiments, Canadian, British, and American, at ping pong and tennis, and he usually won.
He recalled the military band playing in Montreal at the station on his return, and he was not only delighted to see his family in Sherbrooke, but to find that his mother had saved all the money he had remitted while overseas, over $1,000.00 to get him started in civilian life. A veteran who enjoyed deserved benefits he received in later life, Ben refused to participate in Legion or other commemorative activities after the war, and chose not to talk about his experiences.
No doubt the happiest part of his life came later when he became the devoted and loving partner of dear Geraldine. Their devotion to each other was something everybody gathered here can attest to. Ben was a caring, positive person, and his family and friends will always remember his infectious smile and his kindness. He will be greatly missed.