Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II
By Ellin Bessner
New Jewish Press
Ellin Bessner is a Toronto journalist who has written articles about Jews in the Canadian forces and on the home front during the Second World War. Her work brought additional contacts, and led to Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II. The author has used a great number of personal interviews, with surviving veterans where possible, and with family members, as well as published works and archives from across the country.
The book’s title is from a letter prime minister Mackenzie King sent to the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) on March 20, 1947, two years after the war ended. Bessner tells us that King thanked Congress for the Jewish contribution: “He called the war and Hitler a ‘double threat’ to the country’s Jewish servicemen: they had fought not only against ‘Nazi and Fascist aggression’ but ‘also for the survival of the Jewish nation.’”
The CJC may or may not have then known of King’s practice of buying up land around his Kingsmere estate to prevent Jews from moving in, and they could not yet have known of the reference to Jews as “undesirable” in his posthumously released diary.
Bessner doesn’t mention these things, but she makes clear the anti-Semitism that existed in Canada as war came. In an early chapter, “Signing Up,” she explains that in the early months of recruitment some service branches, especially the Navy, “weren’t taking Jews.” The CJC was active in encouraging Jewish enlistment for the obvious public relations reasons, but more seriously because of the importance of defeating Nazism. About 2,000 Jewish recruits apparently concealed their religion, some perhaps to keep promotions open, some because of fear of what would happen to a Jew taken prisoner.
The war was the dominant event in the life of anyone who was alive at the time. Bessner states her purpose this way:
“The book tells the stories of the men and women who served on the home front and overseas: from Alaska to Ortona, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Murmansk Run, from the beaches of Normandy to the glaciers of Iceland, and from West Africa to Bergen-Belsen. It also tells the stories of those who were held prisoner by the Japanese and in German-occupied Europe.”
Bessner divides the book into 15 chapters on Jewish involvement, leading from recruitment in the shadow of the Great Depression, through the early disasters of Hong Kong and Dieppe, Jewish presence in the various services, the “turn of the tide,” to the final chapter, “Kaddish for D-Day.” Her use of source material produces many name references and a number of briefly told stories.
One moving event, especially for Ottawa readers, involved David Molot, who later had a drug store, but in 1944 was a medical sergeant in Italy. Private Simon Isenstein had stepped on a mine and was brought by ambulance to the 5th Casualty Clearing Station, where Molot worked. A few days later, Isenstein died in Molot’s arms. Molot “commandeered a jeep, found a Jewish chaplain, and brought him back to officiate at Isenstein’s burial. After the war, Molot contacted his own relatives in Western Canada to ask them to let the boy’s grieving parents in Calgary know that their son had been buried as a Jew.”
Bessner mentions other names known to Ottawa readers but obviously, she had to make choices on what to include. Many readers will know names of men and women who served in the Second World War not mentioned in the book.
Bessner started on the road that led to this book when she, and her husband and sons, went on a tour of the Canadian War Cemetery at Bény-sur-Mere in Normandy. She came upon the tombstone, marked with a Magen David, of G. Meltz, Royal Canadian Artillery, who died July 8, 1944, at age 25. The epitaph had these words: “HE DIED SO JEWRY SHALL SUFFER NO MORE.”
The epitaph, she says, took her breath away, and she had to find out more. She didn’t have far to look. Googling turned up G. Meltz’s namesake, his nephew George, who lived in Richmond Hill and went to her shul. The family believes the epitaph was composed by the soldier’s widow, Gertrude Shimalovitch, whom he had met and married in London, and with whom, so many years after the war, they no longer had contact.
Jewish geography is certainly a factor in Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II – and so is Canadian history. History has never been a story, it is a process, and this book is a contribution to the process.
Author Ellin Bessner will discuss Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II at a Soloway Jewish Community Centre “Book Talk” on Sunday, November 4, 10:30 am.