New exhibit about Jewish WWII soldiers at Veterans Affairs Canada

Eighty years ago this week, in September 1939, Canada declared war against Nazi Germany. It coincided with the solemn Jewish New Year holidays. Canada’s small Jewish community responded, sending nearly 17,000 Jewish WWII soldiers, sailors, airmen, and members of the merchant navy.

Despite numbering just 1.5 per cent of Canada’s population in wartime, the 168,000 Canadians of Jewish faith saw it as their duty to help the Allies defeat Hitler, and to rescue the Jewish people of Europe from the Holocaust. Only later, as liberators, would they come face to face with what the Final Solution truly meant.

Jewish Canadian WWll soldiers at recruiting office Montreal
Jewish recruiting office in Montreal in World War Two (Courtesy Jewish Public Library).

Canada’s Jewish personnel served at great personal risk, should their Jewish identities be discovered by the enemy. They also faced widespread antisemitism both at home, in the barracks, and on the battlefield.

Nearly 17,000 Canadian Jewish personnel served

The Canadian Jewish men and women who put on a uniform in WWII fought in all the major battles: from Hong Kong to Ortona to D-Day, and in the Pacific. Over 400 were wounded or taken prisoner. About 200 won bravery medals. About 450 others didn’t come home. They lie in graves under tombstones with Stars of David in cemeteries all over the world. Jack Levine, from Inverness, Cape Breton Island, died in Normandy a month after D-Day.

 Jewish WWll soldier
Lt. John Orrell Levine was 23. He was a journalist.
Tombstone of WWII Jewish soldier John Orrell Levine
Ellin visited Levine’s grave in Hottot-les-Bagues, France in June, 2019.

For decades, the important contribution of Canada’s Jewish community to the war was ignored. Veterans Affairs Canada’s website displayed exhibits about veterans from diverse groups: First Nations, Black Canadians, Chinese Canadians, women, and even hockey players. But there was nothing about the Canadian Jewish story.

Veterans Affairs Canada’s website BEFORE.

Duty to carve a place in history for Canada’s Jewish fighters

For years, I have been speaking out about this missing piece of Canadian history. As the author of “Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and WWII”, I felt it was my duty to carve a place in history for those Jewish Canadians, including nearly a dozen of my own relatives, who fought for King and for Country.

Jewish WWII soldier's gravestone in Beny Sur Mer Cemetery
Ellin at the grave of George Meltz in Beny-Sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery near Juno Beach, June 7, 2019.

How fitting it is that this week, on the 80th anniversary of Canada’s entry into the war, and nearly two years after the department first reached out to ask me for help, I am happy to announce that there is a new section on the Veterans Affairs Canada Remembrance page!

Veterans Affairs Canada website about Jewish WWII soldiers
The exhibit is based on my book Double Threat.
Veterans Affairs Canada website
Veterans Affairs Canada website with Jewish WWll soldiers story.

Many thanks go out to Alan Banman, Education officer at Veterans Affairs Canada in Charlottetown, for the writing and layout. Thanks also to Patsy Bolger Gallant, director of learning and special projects at VAC. Also a heartfelt thank you to Janice Summerby, former media relations director at VAC in Ottawa, and author of a book on First Nations soldiers, who started the ball rolling.

Although most of the Jewish Canadian WWII soldiers (veterans) have passed away, those who are left — now in their late 90s or older — are finally getting their historic due.

Jewish WWII veteran with Justin Trudeau
RCAF veteran Dr. Bill Novick with Prime Minster Justin Trudeau at Juno Beach June 6, 2019. (Courtesy Daniel Novick)

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