Book collects the stories of Jewish war vets

Author and journalist Ellin Bessner at a recent book signing event in Burlington. (Steve Arnold photo)

David Goldberg knew he faced a double threat on the day in March, 1944, when German anti-aircraft shells brought his Spitfire crashing to earth.

If he wasn’t killed in the crash, he faced the risk of being captured by the Nazis. For most officers of the Royal Canadian Air Force that would have meant spending the rest of the Second World War in a German prison camp.

As a Jew, however, Goldberg also faced the risk of ending up in a murder factory like Auschwitz, another victim of the Nazi’s Final Solution.

Like Goldberg, who managed to escape capture with the help of the French Resistance and return to active service, more than 17,000 Canadian Jews accepted that threat and served in Canada’s armed forces during the Second World War.

Toronto author Ellin Bessner has collected some of their stories in her new book Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and World War II. For the long-time journalist, the story rescues a piece of Canadian Jewish history as the ranks of veterans grow thinner every year and their war-time recollections, diaries and letters are thrown away by their descendants.

“Many of the kids just didn’t ask about dad’s war service and now the letters are getting thrown out and it’s too late,” Bessner said in a recent interview after a book signing event in Burlington. “Now practically everyone who was alive then is gone.

“It’s a mitzvah to tell people’s stories,” she added. “I think everyone’s contributions to the war should be recognized.”

Bessner said her interest in the story of Canadian Jews in the global conflict was sparked in 2011 when she and her family visited the French cemetery where 2,048 Canadian casualties of the D-Day invasion rest. There, a simple message on the Star of David headstone of a 25-year-old artilleryman named G. Meltz captured her interest.

It declared “Deeply mourned by his wife and family/ he died so Jewry shall suffer no more.”

That simple message struck Bessner. “That epitaph just called out to me over 60 years,” she said. “I had to find out more.”

As it turned out, George Meltz’ namesake nephew lived in Richmond Hill, Ont., and attended the same synagogue as Bessner. As Meltz’ story was assembled a piece at a time, Bessner said, she was drawn into a largely unknown history of a people who, despite prejudice at home, swarmed to recruiting offices when Canada declared war in 1939.

In total, from a Jewish population of only 168,000 in 1939 – less than the Jewish population of Toronto today – 39 per cent of the eligible Jewish population served in the war.

The country they volunteered to serve had not been especially welcoming for them and their families. Many had experienced prejudice in hiring and rental decisions, restrictions in recreation facilities like country clubs, restrictive covenants in property deeds and Jewish quotas in higher education. Many carried vivid memories of incidents such as Toronto’s Christie Pits riot and the 1939 statement of a senior immigration official who, when asked how many Jewish refugees Canada should admit, famously replied “None is too many.” (That attitude, shared by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, has left Bessner with a special dislike for the country’s longest serving leader. “He will always be Haman to me,” she said.)

Of the more than 17,000 who enlisted – 10,200 served in the army, almost 5,900 in the RCAF and 596 in the Royal Canadian Navy. Another 2,300 either didn’t state their religion on documents or served in other allied forces and the merchant marine.

The prejudice and stereotypes they hoped to overcome by serving this country continued to haunt them in the military. The Royal Canadian Navy, for example, drew its officer corps from yacht clubs where it was accepted wisdom Jews were not good sailors. Even experienced yachtsmen such as Toronto’s Ben Dunkelman could not crack that wall. (Rejected by the navy, Dunkelman went on to serve with distinction in the army. He also fought bravely in Israel’s War of Independence.) The RCAF, by contrast, did open its ranks to Jews, on the assumption they were smarter than average and would make good navigators.

Many of those who were given the chance to serve did so with distinction. For his exploits as a fighter pilot, David Goldberg was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1945; Hamilton airman Abe Garshowitz served in the famous Dambusters squadron that crippled German industrial production; Montreal soldier Jack Marcovitch arrested the commandant of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and Arthur Liss, also of Hamilton, served bravely at both Dieppe and D-Day.

“Canada in the 1930s and 1940s was not a welcoming place to be Jewish,” Bessner said. “Despite that they came and fought for King and Country and to save their own people from the Final Solution.”

Bessner added that beyond exterminating the Nazi regime, Jewish Canadians who served in the war also hoped to win a measure of acceptance for themselves and their people.

Army veteran David Croll, the first Jew to be appointed to the Canadian senate, captured that feeling when he was named to the upper chamber of Parliament. “I finally felt that I belonged then,” he said. “I felt it proved that Canadian Jews belonged in Canada.”

Many did find their place in Canadian and American society after the war. David Goldberg, for example, returned to Hamilton and had a long career as a lawyer with one of the city’s major firms as well as in the RCAF reserve; entertainers Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster became famous for their comedy; Monte Halparin went on to fame as TV game show host Monty Hall as did Arthur Hiller, director of the movie Love Story. Army veteran Barney Danson was wounded in the Battle of Normandy and went on to serve in the federal cabinet under Pierre Trudeau.

Even today, however, the contribution of Canadian Jews to the country’s war effort remains largely unknown. The Internet site of Veterans Affairs Canada, for example, has special memorials to Chinese, Indigenous and blacks who served, but not the Jews.

That’s something Bessner hopes to change by drawing attention to their contributions. So far, she said, the government has promised to correct the oversight, but no concrete action has been taken.



Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II is published by The New Jewish Press of Toronto. ( Retail copies are available through Amazon and Indigo.