The first Jewish general in the Canadian Army
began his regular service as a Canadian Army officer as a lieutenant in 1939 at the beginning of the Second World War. During the war, he rose to the rank of major and then stayed in the Army as a career officer. He retired in 1972 as a brigadier-general, the first Jew in the Canadian Armed Forces to attain a general’s rank.
Mendelsohn was born in 1917 in Montreal and grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in the Laurentian village of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts where his father, Isaac Mendelsohn, an immigrant from Romania, worked at the Mount Sinai Sanatorium, a Jewish hospital for the treatment of tuberculosis.
Mendelsohn entered McGill University in Montreal in 1934 to study mechanical engineering. Hitler had come to power in Germany and, anticipating the possibility of war, Mendelsohn applied to join the Canadian Officer Training Corps at McGill. He rose through the ranks and was commissioned as an officer, at the rank of second lieutenant in the active militia, in 1937. Mendelsohn graduated from McGill in May 1939 and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the reserve of officers before leaving Montreal for a job in Sault St. Marie, Ontario.
Canada entered the Second World War in September 1939, and Mendelsohn was called to duty. He went overseas in 1941 with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and was part of the landing at Normandy on D-Day.
In his book, “Canada’s Craftsmen at 50,” the story of electrical and mechanical engineering in the Canadian Armed Forces, Colonel Murray C. Johnston discussed Mendelsohn’s various assignments following the war.
“After the war [Mendelsohn] served on the directing staff of the Canadian Army Staff College, as the Canadian military observer with the United Nations Military Observer Group (India and Pakistan), as the first commander of the Canadian Headquarters United Nations Forces in the Congo, commandant of the RCEME [the Canadian Army’s Corps of Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers] School and, in 1962, head of Corps of RCEME.
“Promoted brigadier-general in 1967, he was appointed to Headquarters Materiel Command. Later, having served as senior military adviser to the Canadian Delegation of the International Commission for Supervision and Control in Laos, he became director general–maintenance and, subsequently, director general–ordnance systems until his retirement in 1972.”
The Canadian Armed Forces were unified in 1968 and, thanks to Mendelsohn’s leadership, the Corps of Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers remained a separate engineering group in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Mendelsohn lived in Ottawa in the final years of his military career and continued to live in the city after his retirement, frequently advising the federal government and Canadian Armed Forces on military matters. A bachelor during his military career, he married Susanne Perfitt Saville in 1975.
In retirement, Mendelsohn’s interest in Judaism and religious observance was rekindled. He studied Hebrew, relearned the Jewish prayer book, and became active in Congregation Beth Shalom.
After his death from prostate cancer on November 10, 1995 at age 78, a fund established in his memory at Beth Shalom provided new Torah mantles for the congregation.
At his funeral, an honour guard of 100 military engineers paid tribute to Mendelsohn outside the Jewish Community Chapel on King Edward Avenue and during his burial at the Bank Street Cemetery.
Throughout 2017, in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is publishing a series of profiles spotlighting the contributions of historically important Jewish Canadians to our country. Previously in the series: