Jewish Canadian service in the Second World War

More than 17,000 men and women from our nation's tiny wartime Jewish community of 168,000 residents would serve in uniform during the conflict, putting their lives on the line in the cause of peace and freedom.

Share:

Introduction

Canada played an important role in helping the Allies achieve victory in the Second World War. Many elements of our country's diverse society came together for this cause, one of the foremost being Jewish Canadians. More than 17,000 men and women from our nation's tiny wartime Jewish community of 168,000 residents would serve in uniform during the conflict, putting their lives on the line in the cause of peace and freedom.

Jews took part in all of Canada's major battles—from Hong Kong to Dieppe, Ortona to D-Day, and beyond. They served with distinction and nearly 200 of their ranks received decorations for gallantry and other official citations for their exemplary service. These contributions came at a high cost, however, with nearly 450 Jewish Canadians losing their lives during the Second World War.

Setting the scene

The Second World War erupted in September 1939 and by the time it finally came to an end in August 1945, its fighting had raged across bloody battlefields, on unforgiving seas and in dangerous skies around the globe for more than six years.

As Nazi Germany invaded and occupied neighbouring countries in Europe during the opening phases of the conflict, it soon became apparent that only a massive international effort could defeat the powerful enemy war machine.

As part of a great national mobilization in Canada, many members of our country's Jewish community heeded the call to serve. In addition to their loyalty to king and country, they had an intensely personal motivation to pick up arms to help defeat the Nazi regime. Under the odious leadership of dictator Adolf Hitler, Germany had enacted many anti-Semitic policies that cruelly restricted the rights of Jewish people. With the outbreak of the Second World War, this virulent racism would soon escalate into the nightmare of the Holocaust.

At the time of the Second World War, many Jewish families in our country had emigrated from Europe just a generation or two earlier—and indeed a considerable number of Jewish Canadians had actually been born overseas. This meant there were often close connections to their old homelands—countries that were now squarely in the crosshairs of the Nazi regime that was sweeping across Europe. Ben Dunkelman of Toronto, who would rise to the rank of major in the Queen's Own Rifles and came ashore at Juno Beach on D-Day, no doubt spoke for many Jews when he said, "It was quite clear to me that, as a loyal Canadian, it was my duty to volunteer to fight. Besides, as a Jew, I had a special score to settle with the Nazis."

Private Ben Weider, a young Jewish recruit from Montréal, with his rifle in 1942. Photo: Public domain

Nearly 5,000 Jews in Canada had stepped up to enlist during the First World War of 1914 – 1918, and some had also served in other earlier conflicts, so there was a proud tradition of military service for the community to build on. This legacy of duty and sacrifice would be echoed and surpassed during the Second World War, with large numbers of Jewish Canadians joining the army, navy, air force and merchant marine.

Mobilizing on the home front

Many Jewish religious and political leaders in Canada encouraged young members of their community to serve in uniform during the Second World War. They employed a variety of strategies, from public and private exhortations to creative media outreach efforts. The Canadian Jewish Congress, an influential advocacy group that would be active in our country for nearly a century, established its own recruiting offices in Toronto and Montréal and also publicized accounts of heroic Jewish service on the field of battle. In 1944 and 1945, it even released a series of comic books called Jewish War Heroes, which were hoped would hold special appeal to boys and young men. Ultimately there were three editions of this unique publication, with each issue containing eight pages of exciting stories that shone a well-deserved spotlight on the heroism of Jewish service members who were fighting with the Allied forces.

There were also other, less public, pressures to enlist. With relatives often living in occupied Europe, the distant war did not seem as far away as it might have for other Canadians. This connection meant the call to serve felt by many Jewish Canadians could be very personal. While most would serve in our country's military, men like William Nelson (an ace pilot in Britain's Royal Air Force) and Robert Mirvish (a radio officer in the United States Merchant Marine) joined the forces of other Allied countries.

More than one million Canadians served on land, at sea and in the air during the Second World War. Similar to their non-Jewish countrymen, about 39 to 40 percent of eligible Jewish men enlisted. Some 280 Jewish Canadian women also served in uniform. Like their male counterparts, they did so for reasons both patriotic and personal. Some of them, including Sue (née Westheimer) Jacobs Ransohoff and Esther (née Bubis) Thorley, had lost a husband or brother during the war and wanted to "take his place" in the struggle against a cruel enemy. Although Canadian women could not serve in combat roles during the conflict, some young Jewish servicewomen would be deployed overseas to support the Allied efforts in Europe—a move that put them within range of enemy action and the danger that entailed.

The Jewish contributions to our country's war efforts were not limited to service in uniform. Like so many other Canadians, members of the larger Jewish community came together to pitch in on the home front. Many would buy war bonds to help fund the government's heavy wartime expenditures, as well as raise funds to support their men and women serving overseas in other ways. Canada's Jewish community took on the task of furnishing recreation huts for the men at all military bases in Canada and Newfoundland, including amenities such as pool tables, radios, magazines, cigarette stands and furniture. Under the leadership of Captain Gurston Allen, whose family was in the film business, the Canadian Jewish Congress War Efforts Committee set up a motion picture unit to supply films for the military's training programs and also for entertainment. Samuel Bronfman, president of Seagram's and president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, donated a yacht to the Royal Canadian Navy reserves to be used for training. It would be called HMCS Montréal ll.

A Jewish Canadian recruitment centre in Montréal during the Second World War. Photo: Alex Dworkin, Canadian Jewish Archives.

A popular, personal touch for many Canadians was sending care packages with tasty food, warm socks, cigarettes, books and other treats to brighten the days of service members far from home. The Jewish community, encouraged by the Canadian Jewish Congress, made sure its members in uniform would receive some special additions, such as kosher salami and Jewish pamphlets. It is hard to quantify the impact this kind of personal support had but William Rosenthal, a 20-year-old soldier from Montréal, wrote a thank you note during the war that said, "I, or rather we, wonder sometimes whether you people realize how much receipt of your gifts mean to us. Getting mail from you is like seeing that kosher stamp again. Your letters and gifts warm us as no sun has ever warmed the heart of a man. Hearing from you folks is like a breath of spring."

Jewish Canadians also stepped forward in considerable numbers to work in the greatly expanded war-related industries on the home front. With so many young men off serving in uniform, people from all walks of life had to fill the great void left in the work force in order to produce the weapons, ammunition, warships, airplanes and other important materials that were needed to win the war. Norman Kendall, for example, helped build aircraft at the de Havilland factory in Toronto before joining the air force. George Shnier of Emerson, Manitoba, ran the Gesco company in Toronto, which supplied sponge rubber for use in manufacturing tanks. He was doing his part in the family war effort that also saw three of his brothers, Clifford, Norman and Jack, serve in uniform.

The Olfman brothers in uniform during the Second World War (from left: Abraham, Jack, Solomon, Maurice and Hymie). Photo: Canadian Jewish Heritage Network

Did you know?

Many large Jewish Canadian families had several of their children enlist during the Second World War. Nathan Feinstein and his younger brother Sam of Inverness, Nova Scotia, both lost their lives. Five brothers from the Olfman family of Kamsack, Saskatchewan, served. Six brothers from the Weiss family in Montréal signed up, while six sons and a daughter of the Hurwitz family of Montréal would also serve in uniform. The Masers of Ottawa also had seven siblings who enlisted during the conflict.

Overcoming challenges

Being Jewish in a Canadian society—and military—that was predominately Christian brought with it a number of challenges. The Canada of the late 1930s and 1940s was not as inclusive as it is today. There were quotas for Jewish students in many of our country's universities, for example, as well as open discrimination in hiring for many fields of work. The tragic story of the MS St.Louis, a ship carrying more than 900 Jewish passengers from Germany seeking refuge from the persecution they were facing at home, was sadly illustrative of the anti-Semitic attitudes all too prevalent in Canada at that time. The ship was turned away from our shores and those on board forced to return to Europe where many would ultimately perish in Nazi concentration camps.

This was the larger backdrop against which many Jewish Canadian volunteers would encounter official and unofficial anti-Semitism after showing up at their local recruiting offices. It sometimes took considerable perseverance just to get into uniform, with some branches of the military presenting more barriers than others. Sadly, the experiences of young Monte Halparin of Winnipeg (who would go on to fame as a game show host with the stage name Monty Hall) were not unique. When he tried to enlist in the armoured corps at the University of Manitoba campus, he was told, "I don't think they're taking Jews."

The Royal Canadian Air Force initially had a policy that expressly limited enlistment to recruits who were "of pure European decent and British subjects." These guidelines were sometimes used to reject Jewish and other racialized volunteers outright (especially those who had not obtained their naturalization documents) before those discriminatory regulations were lifted in 1942. This was compounded by a strong British tradition and class consciousness in the air force that generally made it difficult for those of non-British origin to join or rise in the ranks. Despite these conditions, nearly 6,000 Canadian Jews served in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The evidence suggests that the Royal Canadian Navy was the most difficult branch for Jewish volunteers to join. Fewer than 600 Canadian Jews were accepted into this branch of the military. Initially, it had restrictive recruiting policies similar to those of the air force. This was compounded by enduring ties to Britain's Royal Navy and outmoded attitudes towards different social classes that made entry into the officer ranks particularly challenging for Jewish Canadians who wanted to take on leadership roles. Young Jewish men, like Edwin Goodman and Ben Dunkelman of Toronto, were turned away by the navy, despite being excellent potential candidates.

Indeed Dunkelman, an alumnus of the prestigious Upper Canada College and heir to the wealthy family that owned Tip Top Tailors, was a recreational sailor with his own yacht on Georgian Bay, but even that prior experience did not overcome the discrimination of the navy recruiting office.

The Canadian Army presented the fewest official barriers to young Jewish men and women who volunteered or were called up to serve their country in uniform. That being said, even after having navigated the potential pitfalls to successfully enlist in any branch of the military, Jews often encountered anti-Semitic attitudes in some of their fellow service members. At times, insults and arguments and even physical fights ensued as hateful beliefs bubbled to the surface and some Jews defended themselves. It must be noted, however, that Jewish Veterans remarked that despite encountering prejudice during their time in uniform, it seldom came from those with whom they directly served alongside. The stresses of the battlefield or being in a bomber thousands of metres above enemy territory had a way of bringing together even the most diverse group of men and making perceived differences melt away.

Other subtle and not-so-subtle burdens would be felt by Jewish service members when it came to the observance of their personal religious faith. Although there were ultimately 16 rabbis among the chaplains of the Canadian military, weekly Sunday Catholic and Protestant church services were the only options at many bases, and sometimes Jews would be pressured to also attend or suffer punishment by their superiors for refusing. Getting leave for major Jewish holidays or otherwise marking these special events was another challenge early in the war, but by 1943 allowances were often made to let Jewish service members properly observe them, either on base or in nearby synagogues.

When possible, the Jewish chaplains and service members would hold religious burial rites for the fallen of their faith. Their military headstones were marked differently than those of their non-Jewish comrades in cemeteries at home and overseas. From single graves of Jewish Canadians buried in far-off places such as Ghana and Sudan, to larger groupings in sprawling Canadian war cemeteries like Bény-sur-Mer near Juno Beach and Cassino in Italy, the majority of their headstones are engraved with the Star of David (although several Jewish men were buried under crosses by mistake). In addition, the gravestones typically have Hebrew lettering at the bottom which means, "May their souls be bound up in the bonds of eternal life."

Another more logistical challenge that Jewish service members faced was trying to follow the guidelines of a kosher diet. Many Jewish Veterans of the Second World War would speak of the hard choices this entailed. Although the military did very little itself to accommodate these dietary restrictions, the Canadian Jewish community supplemented the food offerings with occasional food baskets and home-cooked meals at synagogues. Local Jewish communities from Vancouver to Halifax also operated Jewish Servicemen's Clubs or canteens where personnel could get a kosher meal, and the Jewish chaplains distributed food like matza (unleavened bread) to troops on the front line, especially during religious holidays such as Passover. While many Jews just avoided the non-kosher offerings as best they could, some would come to accept the hard reality that they would have to bend the rules or go hungry in a military where food like pork was frequently on the menu.

Ben Dunkelman (left) in Toronto during the war. Photo: Ontario Jewish Archives

The broader military experiences of Jewish service members largely mirrored that of their gentile comrades, but the twisted beliefs of the enemy they were fighting meant they had an additional chilling burden to consider—what would happen if they were captured? The extent of Nazi Germany's abhorrent policies against Jews were well known by the time the Allies landed in Normandy, and Canadians of that faith were understandably very worried of the treatment they would face if they became prisoners of war. Understandably, some recruits chose to not cite their religion as Jewish during the enlistment process to make it harder for potential captors to know their roots. Others decided to change their names, such as George Holidenke of Montréal who enlisted as George Holden, while some, like Saul Shusterman of Toronto, discarded their identity disks (commonly known as dog tags) indicating their religion before being captured.

This was not merely a hypothetical situation; an estimated 85 Jewish Canadian servicemen became prisoners of war during the conflict. They often indeed did their best to keep their religion a secret but some, in an act of pride and defiance, even directly informed their camp guards. Sometimes their non-Jewish fellow prisoners of war would intervene to keep their Jewish bunk mates from being separated and potentially shipped to concentration camps.

Service in the army

The Canadian Army was the largest branch of our country's military during the Second World War and, not surprisingly, most Jewish Canadians who served in the conflict were among the approximately 700,000 men and women in its ranks. An estimated 10,250 Jewish soldiers served in a wide variety of roles and saw action in every major engagement in which Canadian troops participated.

David and Leo Heaps and their father, A.A. Heaps, a Member of Parliament. Photo: Ontario Jewish Archives.

Many Jewish men, like Murray Bleeman of Toronto, Jack Faibish of Markinch, Saskatchewan and Max Berger of Sarnia, Ontario—young and eager to do their part to help defeat the German regime—joined the rapidly expanding Canadian Army during the opening phases of the war. Some Jewish volunteers, including Torontonians Barney Danson and Ben Dunkelman, would soon find themselves among the Canadian troops stationed in the United Kingdom to help defend the island nation against invasion—a very real threat in 1940 after much of Western Europe had been conquered by the German armies.

In the fall of 1941, Canada sent almost 2,000 soldiers to Hong Kong to help defend the British colony in East Asia. It would prove to be one of our country's darkest chapters of the entire Second World War. Japanese troops invaded on December 8, 1941, and Jewish soldiers, like William Allister of Montréal, Hymie Greenberg of Spedden, Alberta, and David Golden of Winnipeg, were among the Canadians who bravely held out for two-and-a-half weeks against a much larger, battle-hardened enemy before finally being forced to surrender on December 25. Some 290 Canadians, including Greenberg, were killed in the fighting there and the remainder, including Allister and Golden, would spend more than three-and-a-half years in harsh Japanese prisoner-of-war camps—an ordeal that cost another 260 Canadian lives before the war finally came to an end and they were liberated.

The Canadian Army's next big operation would also prove to have a devastating outcome. On August 19, 1942, almost 5,000 Canadians came ashore in occupied France on beaches around the French seaside town of Dieppe. Jewish soldiers, like David Hart of Montréal, Maxwell London of Toronto and Maurice Waldman of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, would be part of the action. Planned to be a raid to test German defences, gain experience in mounting amphibious landings and gather intelligence on enemy communications, it ended in disaster as the German defenders took a devastating toll on the Allied troops as they came ashore. In the end, 916 Canadians would lose their lives in the Dieppe Raid and some 1,950 more, including London and Waldman, would be captured and spend the rest of the war in German prisoner-of-war camps.


Jewish Canadian memorials

Memorials main page
  • Montreal, Quebec, Canada

    Baron de Hirsch Monument

    Located in the cemetery's Veterans Field of Remembrance, it is Canada's largest monument to the military service of Canada's Jewish community.

  • Calgary, Alberta, Canada

    Calgary Jewish Servicemen War Memorial

    This memorial, erected by the Jewish War Veterans Calgary Post in 1977, is dedicated to Calgary Jewish Servicemen who fell in the First World War and Second World War.

  • Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    Canadian Jewish War Veterans Memorial Park

    Shaped like an artillery shell split in four, the Jewish Veteran's War Memorial is a place where Jewish families can pay respects to friends and family who fell in service and left no grave.

  • Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

    Hebrew Sick Cenotaph

    This memorial is dedicated to the memory of the Canadian, particularly the Jewish-Canadian, war dead of the First and Second World Wars.

  • Calgary, Alberta, Canada

    Jewish Servicemen's Sacrifice Plaque

    Erected by local Jewish servicemen, this memorial is dedicated to the memory of local Jewish war dead of the First and Second World Wars.

  • North York, Ontario, Canada

    Jewish War Veterans of Canada Memorial

    This monument commemorates and honours the Jewish people who perished and those who served in the Canadian Forces during the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, all peacekeeping missions, and the Afghanistan conflict.

  • Windsor, Ontario, Canada

    Shaar Hashomayim Monument

    Erected by Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 352, this memorial was dedicated on 4 October 1970 to the local Jewish war dead of the First and Second World Wars.

  • Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

    Shaarey Zedek Cenotaph

    The Shaarey Zedek Cenotaph was unveiled on September 11, 1949 and was erected by the General Monash branch of the Royal Canadian Legion with assistance from the Canadian Jewish Congress.

  • New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada

    Schara Tzedeck Cemetery War Memorial

    The Memorial was erected in memory of all those who served in Canada's Armed Forces.

  • Montreal, Quebec, Canada

    United Jewish Appeal Federation War Memorial

    This memorial of black granite includes an inscription in English, French, and Hebrew, as well as the symbols of the Canadian Army, Navy and Air Force, and two stars of David.


The Canadian Army would learn valuable lessons from these early setbacks, and this hard-won experience would begin to pay dividends when our soldiers swung into action for the first time in a large-scale campaign in Europe. In July 1943, our troops were among the Allied invasion force that came ashore on the island of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea. It was the opening move of what would prove to be 20 months of Canadian efforts in the Italian Campaign. Jewish soldiers, like Sam Sheps of Winnipeg, Carl Fried of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, and David Devor of Toronto, faced off against skilled German defenders in a challenging environment that ranged from hot and dusty plains to snowy, rugged mountains crisscrossed by river valleys that made advancing a constant, deadly struggle.

Photo of Sam Barry Sheps – Submitted for the project, Operation Picture Me

Grave marker of Captain Sam Sheps at the Gradara War Cemetery in Italy. Submitted photo

The contributions of Jewish servicemen in Italy could be dramatic. Mitch Sterlin of Montréal led a heroic Canadian stand near Ortona and has a building named after him there called Sterlin Castle. A painting of him and the "castle" he helped defend is at the Canadian War Museum. Sam Boroditsky of Winnipeg was a medic with the elite joint Canadian-American commando team called the First Special Service Force—better known as the "Devil's Brigade." He took part in one of the most dramatic episodes of the war when his unit captured Monte la Difensa, a key German mountaintop defensive position southeast of Rome, during heavy fighting in December 1943.

Photo of Mitchell Sterlin – Picture from West Hill High School Annual 1944 (Montreal). Photo supplied by McGill University.

Grave marker of Mitchell Sterlin

One of the most famous chapters of the Second World War took place on June 6, 1944—a date that would become known as D-Day. Some 14,000 Canadian soldiers came ashore at Juno Beach in France, including Fred "Guts" Harris of Toronto who was the first one out of his landing craft at Bernières-sur-Mer and was immediately cut down by German fire. D-Day would only be the opening blow of the hard-fought Battle of Normandy, which pitted the Allied attackers trying to expand their beachhead in occupied France against the determined German defenders who sought to hurl the Allied forces back into the sea.

Joe Gertel of Montréal, Jack Marshall of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, and Abram "Moe" Arbour of Narcisse, Manitoba, were among the Canadian soldiers who saw action in the liberation of France that raged in the late spring and summer of 1944. Dick Steele of Toronto (born Moishe Kosowatsky in Montréal) was a union leader who volunteered to become a member of a Canadian tank crew, which saw heavy fighting in closing the Falaise Gap in August 1944 during the final phases of the fighting in Normandy. The Allies would triumph in the liberation of France, but Steele would not live to see this victory; he was killed when his tank was hit by German fire on August 17, 1944.

The Battle of the Scheldt would be the next major action for the Canadian Army in Northwest Europe. This bloody struggle, one of the most bitter of the entire war, would rage in Belgium and the Netherlands in the fall of 1944. The major Belgian port of Antwerp had been captured intact by Allied forces and was sorely needed as a shipping facility to unload the many supplies the Allies would require to defeat the German forces. The challenge was that the enemy still controlled the banks of the Scheldt estuary, which lay between Antwerp and the open sea. Our troops, including Jewish soldiers like Samuel Moses "Moe" Hurwitz of Lachine, Quebec (an elite hockey player back home), were tasked with pushing German forces from the Scheldt. It would take weeks of hard fighting in a flat landscape crisscrossed by canals, dikes and flooded lowlands for our troops to successfully carry out this important mission. Sergeant Hurwitz was shot and killed after getting out of his damaged tank in the Scheldt in late October 1944.

The Netherlands and Germany would be the scene of Canadian soldiers' final wartime battles on European soil in the winter and spring of 1945. The Battle of the Rhineland saw Canadian forces push into western Germany in a series of operations beginning in late February, and the liberation campaign in the Netherlands went into full swing in April. It was the climax of the conflict for Canadian forces as our troops freed Dutch town after Dutch town in the long-suffering country that had been occupied by German forces for almost five years. While the war took a hard toll on our soldiers until the bitter end, Jewish Veterans, like Gerald Levenston of Toronto, spoke of the relief and satisfaction that accompanied the German surrender. Lieutenant Colonel Levenston was assigned the task of being a Canadian representative at a surrender ceremony on May 5, 1945. He also had the opportunity to curtly instruct the defeated German troops in his area on "what they could and could not do."

Canadian soldiers celebrating a Passover Seder meal in Belgium in March 1945. Photo: Library and Archives Canada PA-174319

Did you know?

Jews would play a wide variety of roles in the Canadian Army, some of them not what you might expect for a soldier in uniform. Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, two young Jewish comedians from Toronto, enlisted in 1941 and entertained the troops both in the "Canadian Army Radio Show" broadcast from Montréal, and in live variety shows around Canada and the United Kingdom. After the Allies landed in Normandy in 1944, they were soon sent to tour in Northwest Europe with their aptly named "Invasion Revue" where they entertained weary troops looking for a break from the stresses of the front line.

Sergeant Johnny Wayne and Sergeant Frank Shuster, two Jewish comedians from Toronto who enlisted in the Canadian Army, recording a CBC radio broadcast in January 1944. Photo: Library and Archives Canada PA-152118

Service in the air force

Despite the Royal Canadian Air Force initially having recruiting policies that included restrictive ethnic and citizenship elements, especially for officers, a remarkable number of Jewish Canadians would become airmen during the Second World War. Indeed, almost 5,900 Jews would eventually join the air force—2.6 percent of that branch's total enlistment at a time when Jews made up only 1.5 percent of Canada's total population. The duty that they had sought out so determinedly, however, could be particularly dangerous. Some 250 Jews were among the more than 18,000 Royal Canadian Air Force members who lost their lives during the conflict.

Jewish Canadian airmen would take part in operations in all major theatres of the air war but many, like Dave Waterman of Calgary and Meyer Greenstein of Toronto, were part of Bomber Command. Operating from bases in eastern England, aircrews would fly on perilous bombing raids over Germany and occupied Europe seeking to destroy targets such as factories and bridges. Often undertaking nighttime raids in large four-engine warplanes, such as Halifax and Lancaster bombers, they bravely pressed forward through barrages of flak from German anti-aircraft guns and the deadly fire of enemy fighter planes. The harsh odds of survival made it one of the most dangerous roles a serviceman could have during the war, and a sobering 42 percent of those who served in Bomber Command did not survive their tour of duty. Michael Jacobs of Montréal, who completed his tour of duty of more than 30 bombing runs over Europe before losing his life in a training crash in England in February 1943, no doubt spoke for many when he wrote home to his wife Sue, "God, sometimes I get scared in those planes."

Jewish airmen would indeed more than carry their weight in this challenging role. Some, like pilot Clifford Shnier of Manitoba, were members of the skilled "Pathfinder" crews that led the way on Bomber Command's nighttime missions. These men navigated over thousands of square kilometres of blacked-out countryside to find their targets below for the main bomber force that followed. Albert Garshowitz of Hamilton, Ontario, was part of the crews selected to fly on the very important but exceptionally dangerous "Dambusters" bombing missions in May 1943 to hit German dams in the Ruhr Valley in order to cause major damage and cut the power supply for the heavy wartime industry that operated there.

Jewish air force members would find themselves serving in a variety of roles in bomber aircrews. Interestingly, however, many Jews became navigators or air observers. Those with high marks in science in high school or a university education—a cohort that included many Jewish recruits—were frequently funneled into these specialized trades that relied heavily on mathematics. Leon Kagna of Edmonton, Nathan Issacs of Toronto and Ray Silver of Windsor, Ontario, saw action in Bomber Command in these kinds of roles.

Jewish airmen would also serve beyond Bomber Command. Some, like Bill Zelikovitz of Ottawa and Nathan Berger of Montréal, flew in Dakota transport planes that dropped Allied paratroopers into occupied France in the pre-dawn hours on D-Day. Other Canadian Dakota aircrews, including Norman Cohen of Toronto, served on the other side of the world with Royal Canadian Air Force transport squadrons in Burma, conducting operations against the Japanese forces in Southeast Asia. Airmen, like Tim Pervin of Montréal and Lawrence "Duke" Abelson of Ottawa, also flew with fighter squadrons that dueled with enemy fighter planes for control of the skies.

Nathan Louis Berger ID card

Coastal Command, which saw Allied warplanes striking enemy targets at sea, was another area in which Canadian airmen served. The highly decorated airmen Alfred Brenner of Toronto and Sydney Shulemson of Montréal patrolled the skies off the coasts of Western Europe and North America, looking to attack German naval vessels, warplanes and merchant shipping. The Battle of the Atlantic was a central struggle in the Second World War, and Coastal Command played an important role in helping the Allies take control of the seas.

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan saw more than 132,000 air force recruits from Commonwealth countries around the world train in Canada, far from the dangerous skies of enemy-held territory. While most Jewish airmen wanted to be in an aircrew, those who were rejected for medical reasons (such as poor eyesight), including Leo Guttman of Montréal, would find themselves filling important roles as mechanics at British Commonwealth Air Training Plan bases. An eye injury from his pre-war hockey career meant that Mitch Pechet of Cupar, Saskatchewan, served as a flight instructor training the young airmen who would take the fight to the enemy. He also played for the Royal Canadian Air Force's hockey teams. Some Jewish airmen, like Maurice Lipton of Sydney, Nova Scotia, would also hold key leadership positions. After rising through the ranks to command a night fighter squadron in Scotland, Lipton would return to Canada to run all air training in our country in the latter phases of the war. He ended the war a recipient of the prestigious Air Force Cross.

A de Havilland Tiger Moth. Canadian Forces Photo Unit PL-3581

The Royal Air Force's Ferry Command also attracted Jewish airmen like Sam Donen of Winnipeg. Ferry Command crews flew newly manufactured bombers from North America to Europe where they could be used in the fighting against the Germans. The planes were flown across the North Atlantic or via a more southerly route but always over lonely waters where the margins for error were slim. Some aircrews were lost due to challenging weather conditions or mechanical difficulties in the course of making these dangerous, long-distance voyages.

Through it all, ground crew personnel took care of the important duties that kept the planes in the air. Without men like Israel Yamron of Winnipeg, who was stationed on Vancouver Island where he helped maintain military seaplanes, air force operations would have come to a halt. Countless Jews would also serve in other support roles, including Melville Neuman of Regina who maintained radio transmitters in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and Rose Goodman of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, who was an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force–Women's Division. She served as adjutant at an airbase in Claresholm, Alberta.

It indeed took great courage to take to the skies in the face of so many dangers, but Jewish airmen not only met these challenges, they excelled. Some of them, like Bill Novick and Sydney Shulemson of Montréal, Melville Isenberg of Toronto, and Harry Knobovitch of Montréal, received the Distinguished Flying Cross, a decoration "…awarded to officers and Warrant Officers for an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying in active operations against the enemy." Ottawa air gunner Joe Bodnoff was awarded the Air Force Medal for helping sink the German submarine U-1244 in June 1944 and for his actions immediately after. When his shot-up Canso crashed into the sea as a result of the doomed submarine's counterattack, Bodnoff tried to keep his fellow crewmen alive in a dinghy in the frigid North Sea off the coast of Norway. When the men were finally picked up 21 hours later, three of the eight men, including pilot David Hornell, had died of exposure. Hornell was later awarded the first Victoria Cross given to a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Davy Conter of Nova Scotia (centre) poses with his bomber crew during the Second World War. Photo courtesy of Dr. Howard Conter

Did you know?

Flight training during the Second World War might have taken place away from the threat of enemy action, but it was still very dangerous for our airmen. Indeed, some 460 Canadian recruits lost their lives in flying accidents that took place at British Commonwealth Air Training Plan bases across the country. At least 20 Jews were among this unfortunate number, including Norman Kendall of Toronto who lost his life in June 1942 when his plane crashed into a barn in southwestern Ontario.

Service in the navy

Approximately 100,000 men and women served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War. Fewer than 600 of them were members of the Jewish community—less than 0.6 percent of the navy's total enlistment. It proved to be the least common branch of the Canadian military for Jews to serve, reflecting the formal and informal policies that tended to discourage recruitment of those with non-British backgrounds. Most often a Jewish sailor would find himself the only Jew aboard his warship.

Those who did persevere to join the navy would see varied service. Many, like Gerald Rosenberg of Hamilton and Israel "Ichy" Glassman of Montréal, would sail on Royal Canadian Navy warships, making the challenging North Atlantic run escorting merchant convoys between North America and Europe. Service in the Battle of the Atlantic could be extremely dangerous duty. German submarines (known as U-boats) were constantly on the look-out for Allied ships to sink in order to break the vital flow of men and supplies across the ocean to Britain. Some Jewish sailors, like Moe Hurwitz's brother Harry Hurwitz of Montréal, also served on the especially perilous Murmansk Run, which saw warships escort convoys of transport ships voyaging to the frigid Arctic ports of the Soviet Union to help our ally that was locked in a life-or-death struggle on the Eastern Front.

Even when U-boats were not on the scene, sailors could never let down their guard on the volatile Atlantic Ocean. The seas were often stormy, especially in the winter, and battered the relatively small corvette warships that made up the bulk of the Royal Canadian Navy's fleet. Thick fog compounded the risks, and collisions with the other vessels in their convoys were a constant danger. When ships went down, the stakes were high; the Atlantic could be so frigid that death due to exposure came within minutes for any unfortunate sailors who ended up in the water.

A number of German U-boats, including U-130 shown here off the coast of Nova Scotia, surrendered to the RCN after the war in Europe ended in May 1945. Photo: LAC PA-171391

Alex Polowin of Ottawa remembered serving aboard the destroyer HMCS Huron during an attack on German vessels by half a dozen Canadian and British warships in the English Channel in April 1944. One German torpedo boat was sunk and two others damaged. Yet on the way back to port in England, the Huron was accidentally rammed by the Royal Navy's HMS Ashanti. The damaged destroyer managed to return safely to Plymouth for repairs, and the Huron went right back into action for D-Day.

Being sunk by a German U-boat could also result in other hazardous outcomes. Harry Hurwitz survived the sinking of HMCS Athabaskan when the Canadian destroyer was torpedoed off the coast of France on April 29, 1944. He was taken prisoner by the Germans, but not before he threw away his Star of David necklace and his wallet containing Jewish prayers. He would spend the rest of the conflict in captivity as a prisoner of war but managed to conceal his religious identity from guards. He participated in a variety of resistance activities by the Allied prisoners in his camp, including surreptitiously putting dirt into the German officers' coffee.

HMCS Athabaskan during the Second World War. Photo: Imperial War Museum A-22987

Some Jewish sailors took part in other kinds of tasks at sea during the war. This included the naval operations that surrounded D-Day on June 6, 1944, when a massive Allied fleet took soldiers to the beaches of Normandy, France, as the liberation of Western Europe finally began. Canadian ships, with Jewish crew members like Maurice Novak of Montréal, filled interesting roles such as escorting the Allied tug boats that pulled the large, prefabricated "Mulberry" artificial harbour components across the English Channel in the aftermath of the D-Day landings.

Among the Jewish Canadian sailors decorated for their brave service was Petty Officer Irv Kaplan of Montréal who was mentioned in dispatches for his efforts when HMCS Valleyfield was sunk south of Newfoundland in May 1944. He was mentioned in dispatches again when his new ship, HMCS Assiniboine, sank three German armed trawlers off the coast of France in August 1944. Petty Officer Max Abramson of Calgary was another decorated Jewish Canadian sailor. He was mentioned in dispatches for his role in helping HMCS St. Croix sink a German U-boat in the Atlantic in July 1942.

The dangers of serving at sea continued right up to the conclusion of the war in Europe, and Jewish sailors were in the thick of the action until the bitter end. Ralph Zbarsky of Saskatoon was a crewman aboard HMCS Esquimalt when the minesweeper was torpedoed by a U-boat just outside Halifax Harbour on April 16, 1945. Tragically, Zbarsky would die of exposure after spending hours in the frigid springtime waters of the Atlantic—a casualty of the last Royal Canadian Navy warship sunk during the Second World War.

Photo of Ralph Zbarsky. This extract is provided courtesy of the Canadian Jewish Congress which holds the copyright for this volume. For more information, please contact The Canadian Jewish Congress National Archives.

Although they were sometimes considered as members of a lesser service, Jewish Canadian sailors also saw action in the Battle of the Atlantic with the Merchant Navy—the fleet of Allied transport ships that carried the vital war materials from North America to Europe. Even though many of its members were people too young, too old, or otherwise ineligible for service in the military, being a Merchant Navy seaman was one of the most dangerous ways a person could serve in the Second World War as their ships were prime targets for the Germans. More than 90 Jewish sailors, including John Lazarus of Montréal and Somer James of Toronto (who would earn decorations for his brave actions when the Italian port where his ship was docked came under enemy attack in 1943), were merchant seamen during the Second World War. At least 19 of these men would lose their lives.

Did you know?

When the action became intense during the war, Jewish Canadians, like most service members, would often fervently start saying their prayers. Ed Rasky of Toronto was a sick bay attendant aboard HMCS Antigonish on the North Atlantic run. When his frigate went on the attack against an enemy U-boat in November 1944, he ran to his battle station and recited the Shema (a traditional Jewish prayer generally said in times of great peril) as his warship's depth charges were launched on the target.

Medals

Medals main page

Victory, sacrifice and legacy

The Second World War came to an end in Europe on May 8, 1945 (V-E Day), while victory over Japan came some three months later on August 15, 1945 (V-J Day). It was a bloody conflict that would take tens of millions of lives, including those of more than 45,000 Canadians in uniform. Nearly 450 Jewish Canadians were among those who died in the effort to defeat the forces of tyranny that had invaded and occupied much of Europe and East Asia.

Michael "Moe" Resin talking with prisoners at Bergen-Belsen after the camp was liberated in 1945. Photo: Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

Some Jewish Canadians experienced an extremely profound chapter of their military service as the fighting in Europe approached its end. From Italy and France to Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, Canada's Jewish chaplains and servicemen aided the survivors of the Holocaust as they were liberated after years of harsh persecution, reuniting broken families and helping restore desecrated synagogues. Jack Marcovitch of Montréal, for example, helped arrest Josef Kramer—the infamous commandant of the Bergen-Belsen camp who was also known as the Beast of Belsen—in April 1945. He also helped liberate the Vught concentration camp in Holland, finding a prayer book belonging to a murdered Jewish Dutch family and reverently preserving it for the rest of his life. As his son, Don, later related when talking about his father's desire to save this piece of heritage from amongst all that had been left behind by the persecuted Jews of the Netherlands, "He couldn't take them all." Other men, like Michael "Moe" Resin, a photographer serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force in reconnaissance, gave chocolates and candy to female survivors at Bergen-Belsen. He also helped them write to relatives around the world. Sol Goldberg of Hamilton dipped into the army's large stock of supplies to help desperate local Jewish civilians, with the tacit encouragement of his commanding officer.

The story of the Jews who helped the Allies win the war is a proud one. In the end, at least 10 percent of Canada's Jewish community, including 39 percent of all eligible men, would serve in uniform. The conclusion of the conflict was not the end of their story of military service, however. Men and women from the Jewish community have continued to serve in our country's military over the decades, from the Korean War, international peace support efforts and Cold War duties to defending Canada's borders and fighting on the arid plains of Afghanistan. An estimated 680 Jews currently serve in the regular Canadian Armed Forces, making up 1 percent of its total number, and more serve in the reserves. To the brave Jewish Canadians who served and died in the defence of peace and freedom over the years, let us say, "May their souls be bound up in the bonds of eternal life."

Do you have a personal or family connection to Jewish service in the Canadian military? Share your stories on social media!

** Veterans Affairs Canada offers its sincere thanks to Ellin Bessner, author of Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II, for her invaluable assistance in the development of this web feature.

Date modified: