Veterans look back at World War II service

Jewish war veterans, from left, Jerry Rosenberg, Morris Polansky and Lorne Winer served in the Canadian Armed Forces during World War II. PAUL LUNGEN PHOTO
Jewish war veterans, from left, Jerry Rosenberg, Morris Polansky and Lorne Winer served in the Canadian Armed Forces during World War II. PAUL LUNGEN PHOTO

Morris Polansky was a teenage farm boy living in Oxbow, Sask. when he made his way to Winnipeg to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces. Only 19 at the time, he had wanted to volunteer the year before, but some grizzled veterans from World War I advised him to finish high school first. Likely they knew what he was getting himself into and that there was no hurry to get into the fight.

It was still 1940 and there was plenty of action to be seen by Polansky and others who volunteered to join the Canadian Armed Forces. Now 94, Polansky and fellow Jewish veterans Lorne Winer, 97, and Jerry Rosenberg, 93, recalled their military experiences, which saw intense fighting, close calls, the loss of comrades-in-arms and ultimately, victory over the Nazi beast.

As they have for years, the three will participate in Remembrance Day ceremonies on Nov. 11 to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Winer and Rosenberg will be part of a contingent of Jewish war veterans of the General Wingate Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, marking the moment at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre at Spadina and Bloor. Polansky will be at Toronto Centre for the Arts, in North York, where he will lay a wreath during the services, just as he has done for several years.

Their stories are typical of the thousands of young Jewish men who volunteered to serve during World War II. Jews enlisted in far greater numbers than their proportion of the population would have warranted in 1940s Canada. An estimated 10 per cent of Jews joined one of the branches of the Canadian Armed Forces.

For Polansky, at first it was the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Coming from rural Canada, he was mightily impressed with an ad that ran on CKY radio in Winnipeg that announced the army was looking for 400 truck drivers. “I could hardly wait,” he said.

Pretty soon afterwards, however, he transferred into a unit that maintained and repaired electrical devices, including portable generators used in field medical units.

The closest he came to a life and death experience was when in late 1943 the German air force bombed the transport ship he was on, en route to Italy. Luckily most of the soldiers were successfully evacuated in lifeboats before the ship sank, he said. Polansky saw duty in Italy. His unit was later transferred to the fighting in Belgium and Holland.

Rosenberg’s military service was entirely at sea. Unusual for most Jewish recruits, who chose the air force or the army, Rosenberg enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy in 1940 and saw duty as a signal man on board a variety of corvettes. The small warships saw convoy duty, escorting merchant vessels from Canada to Britain. The ships were targeted by German submariners, and Winer was part of convoy SC 42 (the 42nd slow convoy), which was devastated by Nazi wolf packs that preyed on lightly defended ships. There was 64 ships in the convoy and only four escorts, including Rosenberg’s corvette, he said.

Arrayed against them was a group of 14 U-boats. One or two subs would attack and draw off the defenders, recalled Rosenberg, and then other U-boats would come in and attack the merchant ships. At the end of the engagement, 16 merchant ships were sunk and two others were damaged.

Rosenberg, luckily, escaped that fate. “I was never on a ship that was sunk,” he said. But one incident came pretty close. A miscommunication between the captain on the bridge and a fire-control officer below decks, who spoke through communication tubes, led the officer to release depth charges set for 60 feet while the ship was travelling at only six knots. The depth charges exploded almost below the ship and lifted the stern clear out of the water, Rosenberg said.

Winer, too, was no stranger to friendly fire incidents. Arriving in France on D+30, 30 days after the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy, he was a member of the Second Canadian Survey Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery.

Soon after arrival, he was at the front, participating in the battle to liberate Caen. The town was pulverized  during the war, but the closest his unit came to destruction was during the many sorties by Allied air forces, which mistakenly dropped bombs on his unit, killing Canadian soldiers, he said.

Winer’s unit helped liberate Caen and then was part of the battle to trap a German army at Falaise. He saw action for the rest of the war as Canadian forces headed north, eventually liberating Holland.

He survived, but many others did not. He recalls meeting fellow Jewish Canadian, Harry Black, in England and spending some time with him in Cardiff, Wales. Black had enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and by the time they met, he was on leave after having flown multiple missions. Most of his friends had been killed and Black told Winer he didn’t expect to survive much longer. Sure enough, soon after returning to duty, he was pronounced missing in action, Winer recalled.

The war ended in May 1945, 70 years ago, but Canadians haven’t forgotten.

For the past 11 years prior to Remembrance Day, Polansky has been a fixture at Yonge and Eglinton, where he hands out poppies. “It’s surprising how many people come up and thank you for what you’ve done,” he said.

Winer, who participates at the Bloor JCC ceremonies, said passers-by take an interest in proceedings. “When I wear my beret and uniform, I have a lot of people come over to me and thank me,” he said.