A watercolor illustration of a man falling from a burning plane
A page from the diary Paul Canin made while he was held in a German POW camp. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Editor’s note: This story was produced in partnership with J. The Jewish News of California.

Paul Canin sits in the bright, low-ceilinged living room of his Berkeley home on a recent afternoon, flipping through the yellowing pages of the diary he kept during World War II.

As a radar navigator in the U.S. Army Air Forces, the second lieutenant participated in several missions across Europe. On Sept. 13, 1944, his B-24 Liberator was bombing oil refineries near the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland when it was shot down by Nazi anti-aircraft weaponry.

Paul Canin looks at the page of his diary showing the moment he jumped out of his gunned-down plane. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Six members of Canin’s 11-man squadron died. He survived — barely — after struggling to bail out of the plane.

“This is where I stood and tried to jump out, but I was sucked back in,” he says, pointing to one in a series of still-vivid watercolors he painted on the pages of the diary. “This is me trying to get out of the plane,” he says, pointing to another dramatic image of a figure clinging to the plane’s catwalk. “This is me when I finally opened my chute. This is me trying to drift down to the woods. And here I am when I finally got to the ground.”

A man parachuting
A test description of what it was like "as I somersaulted into the slipstream"

Canin was captured and held for eight months in a POW camp in northern Germany for American and British officers, an experience he documented in the Red Cross–issued diary using a brush he constructed from his own hair and paints he borrowed from another prisoner. The diary includes diagrams of the camp and maps of Europe, as well as portraits of the other “Kriegies” (from the German word for “prisoners of war”) in his barracks. One of them, a bombardier from Maine, gave him the nickname “Rembrandt.”

A folder with tow mugshots, numbers and a thumbnail
Paul Canin’s photo ID as a prisoner of war. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Watercolor of a crowd in a POW camp with a large watchtower
Paul’s diary. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Schematic drawing of the camp
Schematic drawing of a dormitory
Description and illustration of another soldier in the POW camp
Description and illustration of another soldier in the POW camp

“It was super miraculous the way it worked out,” says Canin, a Purple Heart recipient. “Instead of being killed or being tortured by the Nazis, I wound up in a special camp that was used for propaganda [to demonstrate] that they were not mistreating us.” 

At one point, he and his fellow Jewish POWs were separated from the others and sent to a different part of the camp. He feared he would be killed, but the Russians liberated the camp soon afterward.

“I’ve had a very interesting life,” Canin, who turned 100 on April 28, says as his 92-year-old wife, Helen, sits nearby and helps him narrate his story.

Paul in a room with a wall-size map and boats and the marina visible through the window
Paul Canin in his studio. Pins on the map mark places the couple have traveled to after their retirement. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

They met in Brooklyn after the war, and both had successful careers in Poughkeepsie, New York — he as an architect with his own firm, she as a nurse. They raised three children and moved to San Francisco in 1989, then to Berkeley the following year. In retirement, the two have traveled widely, volunteered and made art. Lots of it.

Their three-story home is a veritable museum filled with their handiwork: his duck sculptures and Japanese garden–inspired tables, her stained glass windows and embroidered pillows. Around her neck, Helen wears an intricate silver pendant fashioned by Paul.

The home is another unique part of the couple’s story. It’s a work of art itself — and one of only 13 floating homes in the Berkeley Marina.

A big storm capsized the structure in January 2005. Although they lost many of their possessions, Paul was sanguine about having an opportunity to redesign and enlarge the home. Last winter’s heavy rains caused more problems, including leaks in the bedroom and some flooding in Paul’s “basement” woodshop, which sits mostly under the water line.

Helen with her hand on Paul's shoulder wearing an intricate silver pendant fashioned by Paul
Helen and Paul Canin at their home in a houseboat Paul designed for them at the Berkeley Marina. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Helen Canin offers biscotti made by Paul. “His biscotti are famous,” she says. At 100, Paul has lost the strength in his arms needed for making sculptures and other artworks, and cooking has become a welcome creative activity. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Despite the challenges of living on water, the two have no plans to move. In fact, a few years ago they installed a chair lift to make it easier for Paul to get up and down the stairs. “We’re very adamant that we’re able to cope with our daily activities,” Helen says. “Paul has very good care from the VA. They even come here to check on him.”

As fishing boats cruise by the home, causing it to rock ever so slightly, Paul recounts how he took up drawing as a child in Borough Park, a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn, and worked with his Russian-born father painting signs.

“If he did a sign for a fish store, I would paint the fish on that sign,” he says. “My greatest painting was for a deli store. It was a big round dish with cold cuts on it.” Later, as a Pratt Institute–trained architect, he designed private homes and religious buildings, including a synagogue in Poughkeepsie and a chapel at a prison in nearby Stormville.

He also designed a library for the Unification Church, though not before consulting Beth-El’s rabbi about whether it was kosher to work for the Moonies. “I had apprehensions about it,” Paul says, “and I went to my rabbi. He said, ‘Don’t join ’em, but help ’em.’”

Helen considered a career as an artist, but an adviser at her high school thought she wasn’t competitive enough to thrive in that world. So she made art as a hobby, working in a variety of media over the years. One of her latest projects involves creating collages out of small metal objects she finds at the Urban Ore salvage yard.

Helen leans against a bench in her home and looks out the window at the marina
Helen Canin, 92, a retired nurse and artist, wears a necklace designed by Paul. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Paul sits in a motorized chair on the stairs as Helen watches
A few years ago, after a bad fall, the couple installed a motorized chair to take Paul up the stairs to the second floor of their houseboat. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Lisa Canin, Paul and Helen’s youngest child who lives in San Anselmo, jokes that her parents are “addicted to productivity.”

“They’ve been a good match for one another,” she says in a phone interview. “Sometimes they’re almost productive to a fault, but it has definitely kept them going and given them a sense of purpose.”

When the pandemic started, the couple slowed down, but only a bit. They take daily walks around the marina and watch travel shows and nature documentaries at night. Paul enjoys baking: bread, rugelach, biscotti. Helen is involved with a native plant restoration project at a local park. Lisa visits them regularly, and they all Zoom with Paul and Helen’s two sons, one of whom was a pilot in the Navy.

Earlier this year, the couple hosted Ben Stern, a 101-year-old Holocaust survivor and Berkeley resident, at their home. They had read about him in Berkeleyside and figured out that Stern was a prisoner at Auschwitz when Paul’s plane was shot out of the sky that September day.

“I managed to survive a number of potential deaths,” Paul says. “I don’t believe in God. I just believe in goodness.”

A replica of a B-24 plane, the same type of aircraft Paul Canin was flying in when he was captured. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Images from Paul Canin’s diary are courtesy of his family.