Canadian rabbis overseas in 1945 send men Jewish New Year greetings
Seventy-five years ago in September 1945, Canada’s Jewish troops who were still stationed in Europe after the war ended received a typewritten bulletin from their Jewish chaplains. The bulletin wished them a Happy New Year, in English, and a L’SHANA TOVA TIKASEVU, in old-fashioned Hebrew.
The sender was Rabbi H/Major S. Gershon Levi, the Senior Canadian Jewish Chaplain in the Second World War. Levi was stationed at Canadian military headquarters, in London.
“To all of you, wherever you may be – in the Netherlands, with the Canadian Occupation Force in Germany, on the job in the United Kingdom, or awaiting repatriation – this Bulletin brings warmest good wishes for a Happy New Year.”Rabbi S. Gershon Levi, Senior Canadian Jewish Chaplain, London, 1945
I found some of Levi’s wartime newsletters Friday in the archives of the Jewish Canadian Military Museum in Toronto. The museum’s founder, Al Rubin, a Cold War RCAF veteran, died in May 2020. He left behind a lovingly preserved treasure of artifacts showing the contribution of Canada’s Jewish community to military history.
Rubin’s daughter is working on a plan to preserve these important historical objects and how to best showcase them. I am helping.
Canada’s first Jewish war chaplain
Gershon S. Levi, then 36, was Canada’s first-ever official Jewish military chaplain. Although 4,700 Canadians of Jewish faith did serve in the First World War, the Canadian government did not appoint home-grown Jewish clergy to accompany them to England, and beyond to Vimy or Passchendaele.
Levi was born in Toronto, became ordained as a rabbi in the United States, and served on the staff of the Shaar HaShomayim Synagogue in Montreal. He enlisted with the Canadian Army in 1941.
Arriving in England in 1942, Levi’s role was to minister to the many thousands of Canadian Jewish personnel who had volunteered to go abroad to fight Hitler. Aside from visiting the wounded, and officiating at weddings and funerals, Levi and the half-dozen Canadian Jewish chaplains who followed him worked hard to provide opportunities for Jewish troops to observe their faith.
By the late summer of 1945, the war in Europe was over. Yet repatriation of all the Canadian troops would take months. With the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement on the horizon, Levi sent out a special bulletin.
Deported and disappeared
The bulletin told them when and where to observe the holidays.
In Belgium, four cities were holding Jewish services: Ghent, Antwerp, Ostend, and Brussels. The Great Synagogue of Europe on Rue de la Régence in Brussels was not destroyed during the war. However, an estimated 25,000 Belgian Jews were deported to the Auschwitz death camp between September 1942, and liberation in September 1944.
Canadians stationed in the Dutch capital or in Germany, were expected to attend the service at the elegant Royal Concertgebouw (concert house) in Amsterdam on Vanbaerle Straat.
Those stationed to the east, in Nijmegen, could go to the Nieuwe (new) synagogue at 21 Gerard Noodtstraat. During the war, the Germans requisitioned this building, destroyed the insides, and used it as a warehouse. Nearly the entire Jewish community of Nijmegen (537 people in 1941) had been deported to their deaths.
For those obtaining leave, a welcome is extended by all Synagogues in the British Isles to attend their services. Home hospitality is available for all who apply- but apply in good time. For LONDON, address your request to the “Hospitality Bureau, Balfour Services Club, 41 Portland Place, W1
Jewish personnel in the United Kingdom were welcome to attend any local synagogue. Central services were being held at 1830 hours and 0930 hours at the Aldershot Military Synagogue, in the Canadian repatriation camp, near Surrey.
Read Rabbi Levi’s Message here:
Wishing You a Happy New YearThe war is over. “The dominion of arrogance”, in the words of our Holyday prayer, has “vanished like smoke”. As we read our Machzor this year, we shall thank God for our Victory and remember humbly our comrades who laid down their lives to make it possible. In our Yizkor services we shall also remember the hosts of innocent civilians who perished in the struggle, and think especially of the six million Jewish men, women and children deliberatEly exterminated in Europe. With special fervour we will recite our age-old prayers, which look forward to the day when hatred and violence will be banished and mankind “will form one brotherhood to do Thy will with hearts serene”.
And for the Jewish people, our kith and kin, for whom the peace has yet to be won, we shall pray for a new rebirth, “joy to Thy Land, happiness to Thy City, and redemption to Thy people, speedily, and in our days”.
May God Bless You and inscribe you in the Book of Life, Blessing and Peace.
Funding for a memorial
As part of their response to the end of the war, Jewish personnel were asked to donate money to help build a permanent memorial, before they were all repatriated back to Canada.
Just as modern-day synagogue presidents usually launch their annual fundraising campaigns during the Jewish New Year services, so did Rabbi Levi. His project, known as “Canada Grove”, aimed to have 1,000 trees planted by the Jewish authorities in what was then Palestine. Each tree cost 7 shillings.
“This forest, bringing new life to barren hillsides in the Holy Land, will be an everlasting memorial to our Canadian buddies, Jew and Christian alike, who gave their lives in this war,” Levi wrote.
The call for contributions was more than successful. According to the chaplains’ bulletin No. 5 in late August 1945, the Jewish National Fund was preparing a specially illustrated certificate. All the individual donors would get their own smaller certificates.
On Sept. 5, 1945, Rabbi Levi presented the Canada Grove memorial scroll to the chief of staff of the Canadian military, Lt.-Gen. Percival Montague. The Ottawa Citizen ran a photo of the London presentation a few days later. Pte. Lilian Meltzer of Saint John, N.B. is shown handing over the certificate, along with Rabbi Levi.
Joy and sadness
How strange it must have been for the Canadian Jewish troops in 1945 to attend Jewish services in those war-ravaged European cities. After years of German occupation, how incredibly moving for the troops to mingle with local survivors of the Holocaust. How powerful an emotional to sit together and hear the trumpet-like sound of the ritual blowing of the Shofar (ram’s horn).
Yet at the same time, the mood was surely tempered by thoughts of all those who had been killed, either in the Holocaust or on the battlefield.
Six million European Jews and 44,000 Canadian military personnel were wiped out in the struggle to defeat Hitler.
1945 message valid today
Jewish people around the world are about to observe their holiest annual religious holidays, in perhaps the most difficult and strangest times since the Second World War.
Although we are not living under Nazi rule, our world may seem in turmoil. Some 27 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and over 880,000 have died (to date). Other urgent problems to tackle include climate change, reports of China deporting Uighurs to concentration camps, and a global economic collapse. These are all going on at the same time as the struggle for democracy in Belarus, and calls for racial justice for Black and Indigenous people.
Despite what should be a joyous time to spend with family, most synagogues in Canada will be closed this New Year due to COVID-19. Some are providing limited access. Prayer services will be mostly conducted via YouTube or Zoom.
Although we do not see our way clear for a long while yet, we can identify with this stirring seventy-five year old message from one of the chaplains. This bulletin was issued by the Hebrew chaplain for the R.C.A.F, Squadron-Leader Jacob Eisen, of Edmonton, on August 15, 1945.
“There are so many things we must undo; there are yesterdays to be retrieved, there are broken things to be rehabilitated and lost things to be found. So the soul cries for the ‘land of beginning again’. This is the challenge of the New Year.”