Close encounters with relatives of Canada’s Jewish war heroes

I can not tell you how thrilling it has been for me during this Remembrance month to be able to speak at so many venues across Canada about my book “Double Threat”, telling the stories of the 17,000 Canadian Jewish men and women who served in uniform in WWll.

Audiences have been most welcoming, and attentive, at my presentations. Yet many times, it is at the end of the evening when I experience some of the most thrilling moments of my six year long journey to uncover the war heritage of Canada’s Jewish fighters. While most folks are putting on their coats and getting ready to leave, a few audience members will usually make their way over to where I am standing, for a private word.

“These are the medals I want to mount,” one woman told me Sunday night in Toronto, at the Machzikei Hadas Clanton Park Synagogue, where she pulled a plastic bag out of her purse. It contained her relative’s Second World War service medals. They included an Italy Star, and a Defence Star, among others.  She thought they belonged to a grandparent, but she wasn’t sure. I was able to direct her to the Library and Archives Canada website where she can apply for his service record, and try to figure it out.

Then there was the man who waited until most everyone had left, before confiding in me that he was the nephew of J.B. Salsberg, a prominent Jewish Communist politician in Toronto during the war years and beyond, who was too old to serve, but was closely affiliated with many of the Jewish Communists in my book who were arrested and jailed during the early years of the war, then released and permitted to enlist.

Ellin with Sharona Brookman, niece of Lt. Mitchell Sterlin.

And then there was the woman with short hair and jeans who made sure to identify herself to me at the door, before the evening began. It turns out she is the daughter of the late Martin Sterlin, a Montreal architect and veteran of the Israel War of Independence in 1948, whose older brother was killed in Italy in December 1943. I had interviewed Martin in August 2014, in Montreal, and we talked for hours about his brother Lt. Mitch Sterlin‘s service, especially the famous stand near Ortona where Mitch and a handful of Canadian soldiers successfully held a strategic Italian farmhouse against overwhelming German firepower.  For that brave act, Mitch was nominated for a Military Medal, but he didn’t get it. He was killed a few days later by German snipers, and the paperwork hadn’t gone through yet; they didn’t award MMs posthumously. Mitch’s men named the farmhouse Sterlin Castle, it is still there to this day, and his exploits have become the stuff of legend to generations of Royal Canadian Regiment soldiers. But the young officer’s death devastated his younger brother Martin, and indeed, the family.

Sadly, Martin died four months after our interview, in December 2014, almost exactly seventy one years to the day that his brother was killed.  Martin was a real character: educated, fiesty, opinionated, and passionate about who was right and who was wrong in the Second World War, especially the generals.

His daughter, who works at York University, did not know that I had interviewed her late father on video. I was so pleased to tell her that I would share the raw video files with her, so that she could watch him in his element during our wide-ranging interview.

Grave of Lt. Mitchell Sterlin, in Italy. (CJHN photo)


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