Dieppe anniversary: a milestone in the search for Canadian Jewish servicemen killed during the Second World War

It is fitting, in so many ways, that this week marked the 73rd anniversary of the disastrous Allied raid on Dieppe, on August 19, 1942.

The Dieppe commemoration comes just as my formal work sabbatical officially begins from my job as a journalism professor at Centennial College in Toronto.

During this academic year, I am so grateful to be able to finish researching, and begin writing my new book about the 450 Canadian Jewish men and women who died in uniform during the Second World War.

All I need is a publisher!

And help from the public: please contact me if you know anyone who should be included in the book. ebessner@gmail.com

Full disclosure: I’ve actually been doing this during my spare time for the past 15 months. And really, I’ve been working towards this day since 2011. That’s when I visited the Normandy grave of Bombardier George Meltz, 25,  from Toronto, with its Star of David, and the inscription “He died so Jewry shall suffer no more.” It’s what started this journey to know who he was.

So far, of the 450, I’ve tracked down and interviewed about 80 next of kin or people who knew them: including Isabella Meltz in Toronto, his niece. From Vancouver, I’ve spoken with Flying Officer Clifford Shnier’s brother, Max Shnier, and from San Diego,  I interviewed Cpt. Jacob Mandel’s niece and name sake, Jackie Adler.

Although I didn’t know it until last summer, I, too, had someone in my own family who was lost. 
/Ellin Bessner photo.
In the Canadian Jewish Congress 1947 publication “Canadian Jews in World War 11, Volume 11, Casualties”, I discovered the photo and short write up about my great-Aunt Dorothy Lieff’s brother.  
Sgt. Jack Brovender, originally from Timmins, Ontario, was killed along with his five-man crew, on a training flight over the Lake District of England in 1942, when his Wellington bomber crashed. 
And, I’ve, unfortunately, been making a lot of those people sad.

Thanks to the Internet, and my primary source research at archives in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal, I often know more then they do about what happened to their siblings, friends, or husbands. 

Here’s what happened when I interviewed Aneta Chernin in her lovely Halifax home, overlooking the “Arm” in June, to talk about her sister, Section Officer Rose Goodman, of the RCAF Women’s Division. The only Jewish woman killed in uniform in the war, Goodman died on a wintry January night in 1943, in an Air Force plane crash near Lethbridge, Alberta. 
What I told Chernin about why her sister was on that plane, I’ll save for the book.

“She should have lived,” Chernin said, her eyes distant, after I shared with her what I’d found about the accident, in the files at the Library and Archives of Canada, in Ottawa. 
Ellin Bessner and Aneta Chernin, after the interview, Halifax, June 2015.

As best-selling author and my dear colleague Ted Barris often tells our journalism students when we teach them how to write an obituary, an obituary isn’t a story about how the person died. It is a story of how the person lived. Sometimes it is the final time the person’s name will appear in print.

And that’s what my book could be, too.

The stories of these 450 Canadians. How they lived. Who they loved. Where they worked. And where they came from. And yes, of course, there has to be a bit about how they died.

  • It’s a story about Canadian immigration: like Zave Brown, from North Bay, who had to write part of his letters home in Yiddish, because his mother, like many of the parents, was born outside Canada.  Many came from Russia, Romania, Austria, England, and Poland.

  • It’s a story about growing up during the Depression: where David “Tevie” Devor, the middle of ten kids from St. Catharines, left school in Grade 7 to work.
  • It’s a story about duty: when war ace Flying Officer William Henry Nelson gave up his leave to pilot his plane one more time after the Battle of Britain, and was the first Canadian Jew to win a Distinguished Flying Cross.      

  • It’s a story about bravery: how Moses Hurwitz, the Lachine hockey player who turned down a tryout with the Bruins to become a twice-decorated tank commander, capturing German soldiers, as legend has it, with a wounded arm and his fierce moustache.
  • It’s a story about a need to stop Hitler and save their Jewish relatives in Europe.

That last one is the motivation for many of the men in the book.  Including Michael Jacobs,  the Yale-educated son of S.W. Jacobs, the second Jew elected to the House of Commons. And Joe Gertel, a fur worker from the Jewish ghetto in Montreal, who “had a score to settle” with Hitler. And Communist and union leader Dick Steele, from Toronto, who went from going to prison for opposing the war to holding classes for his Governor General’s Foot Guards about why they had to hate and beat “the Nazi vermin”.

After the war was over, Prime Minister Mackenzie King thanked the 17,000 Canadian Jews who served in the military between 1939-1945, saying that for them, the war against Hitler was a “double threat”. Not only to their liberty and democracy, but it was a threat to their very existence as a race.

I thought that might make a very good title for the book. Double Threat.

Finally, one more word abut the anniversary of Dieppe. About a dozen Canadian Jews lost their lives in that battle.

Which is how, 73 years ago, a Toronto woman named Rose Cohen would become a widow.  Her tall, handsome husband, Lionel Cohen, was in the insurance business. He had enlisted right after war was declared, in September 1939. They’d married two months later. The lower photo belongs to Rose’s son Jerry Richmond, seen immediately below. His father, was Rose’s second husband, who was also a veteran.

Jerry Richmond, with Lionel Cohen’s Honour Roll from the City Of Toronto, August 17, 2015, Toronto.
Lionel and Rose Cohen, in happier times, photo courtesy of Jerry Richmond. 

Cohen was first posted to Iceland in June 1940. While there, he was one of the few Allied servicemen to attend the island’s first-ever Yom Kippur services, held under the auspices of the British forces, with just two prayer shawls, and attended by a handful of Jewish refugees.  You can see a photo of that event taken by a local photographer, now in possession of the Ontario Jewish Archives in Toronto.

Soon after the High Holidays, at the end of October 1940, Cohen embarked for England and two years of special commando training with the Royal Regiment of Canada.

Cohen was among the nearly one dozen Canadian Jewish infantrymen to be killed at Dieppe.  Meyer Bubis, who was also at the Iceland holiday service, died of wounds weeks later. Lunch counter owner Murray Bleeman was brought back to England for a solemn burial August 24, 1942 with top Canadian military brass in attendance.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for more, that means this book is something people might buy. As I begin my sabbatical year to complete my own mission of tribute, I hope you follow me on this journey.

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