Artist ends year-long journey to identify veteran in painting

'Portrait of a Patriot' presented to war hero’s former legion branch in Toronto

Just over a year ago, Gerre Virsunen was going up the escalator in Loblaws at Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue West when she saw a veteran selling poppies.

Instantly, she knew she had to paint him.

“There are certain faces you see, and immediately know are special,” she said.

At the time, the Don Valley Art Club, where Virsunen is a member, was in the planning stages of its Canada 150 art show. The theme was “Creative Inspiration: Our Canada.”

Feeling particularly inspired, Virsunen joined the line of shoppers waiting to purchase a poppy from the man. When her turn came, she bought her poppy and asked the veteran if she could take his picture and later use it to paint his portrait.

The man obliged, and stepped aside. By the time Virsunen finished snapping her photos, a large line of increasingly impatient shoppers had formed behind her and she hurried off.

But she never got his name.

Fast forward to May 2017. The show was a great success, with Virsunen’s painting, ‘Portrait of a Patriot,’ receiving an honourable mention at the art club’s awards night.

East York artist Gerre Virsunen holds her portrait of Jerry Rosenberg, Canadian war hero. (Adam Darrah)

Ever since, she’s been searching for the veteran she met at the top of that escalator in November 2016.

“I wanted to give the portrait to him as a thank you for his service and his inspiration,” Virsunen said. “To me, he represented the patriotism and the love of Canada that we all share.”

After calling various legions around the city with no success, she was ready to give up. Then, a few weeks ago, her journey finally came to an end – exactly where it began the year before.

That day, Sandy Goldhar Hambourg and Myron Hambourg, members of the Canadian Royal Canadian Legion General Wingate Branch 256, were selling poppies at the same Loblaws where Virsunen met the subject of her portrait.

“Through the crowds of people, a lady came up to me and asked about the veteran that used to stand at the top of the escalator,” Goldhar Hambourgh said.

“Being new, I didn’t know everyone from the branch, so she showed me a picture of a portrait that she had painted, and without a doubt, we knew immediately that it was Jerry Rosenberg.”

Gerald “Jerry” Rosenberg served both in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War and for the Israeli forces during the War of Independence in 1948. The Canadian war hero, and former president of RCL Wingate Branch 256, died Aug. 23, 2017 at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.

Though she never had the chance to gift the portrait to him, Virsunen attended the branch’s monthly meeting last Sunday morning at Baycrest in North York. It was there that she presented it to Rosenberg’s former branch, much to the delight of its members – Rosenberg’s close friends and comrades.

Members of RCL Wingate Branch 256 Morris Polanski (left) and Shelley Rosen (right) stand between Gerre Virsunen (centre), who presented her portrait of Jerry Rosenberg to his friends and comrades last Sunday. (Adam Darrah)

The legion, one of the four remaining branches representing Jewish veterans in Canada, assured Virsunen that the portrait would be passed along to Rosenberg’s family, who live in Israel.

“After finding more about his background, I knew I’d done the right thing in choosing him,” Virsunen said. “I think the portrait has finally found its home, and I’m very pleased about that.”