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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.