Review: ‘Double Threat’ called ‘excellent’ by University of Western Ontario women’s studies professor

Canadian Jewish Studies / Études juives canadiennes, vol. 26, 2018 221

https://cjs.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/cjs/article/view/40082/36269

40082-49580-1-SM

“By contrast, Ellin Bessner’s excellent book, Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military
and World War II makes a point of ensuring women’s voices are heard, with Jewish
women soldiers’ stories peppered throughout the book. There is also a full chapter
devoted to the approximately 280 Canadian Jewish women who enlisted in the war,
though, presumably also due to a lack of sources, both in terms of archival material
and women available to interview, this is the book’s shortest chapter. Regardless,
this is a vital addition to our knowledge of the Canadian Jewish experience of the
Second World War, especially since our knowledge of women’s experiences has been
so lacking. Bessner does an excellent job of exploring how gender and Judaism mixed
for female soldiers. Though Jewish women were a small percentage of both the total
number of women who enlisted and the number of Jews who enlisted, they played an
important role, helping to advance the place of women in Canada while also helping
to advance the standing of Jews in Canada. Not only that, Jewish women’s enlistment
challenged the place of women within the Jewish community itself, and helped to
make way for Jewish women to enter more public roles in their community.
On the face of it, the book seems somewhat haphazardly organized, with chapters
on important battles such as Dieppe, to the place of Canadian Jews in particular
branches of the armed forces, to Jewish communists in uniform. However, by the
end, she has covered the entirety of the war, and detailed how Jewish identity meshed
with that of being a Canadian soldier. For many, these two identities did not always
combine well. For instance, she details how some Jewish soldiers were forced to give
up eating kosher due to the ignorance of the armed forces to dietary needs. However,
as more Jews enlisted, the introduction of Jewish chaplains – who had never been
included in the armed forces’ chaplaincy before – was necessary, and this helped to
make being both Jewish and a soldier more compatible. For instance, this helped
soldiers to receive leave for Jewish holidays, and helped them to receive food that was
more in line with their usual dietary practices. Though perhaps not strictly kosher,
at least the Jewish soldiers could finally eat meals that did not contain pork. Bessner
also details how the increasing enlistment of Jewish men and women into the armed
forces likely helped to improve the status of the Jewish community in Canada. For
many soldiers, if not most, it was their first time meeting someone Jewish. She quotes
from a diary written by a soldier from Quebec who had made a deep connection with
a Jewish soldier while they were held as prisoners of war in Hong Kong. He wrote,
“‘Strange. I used to despise Jews and now my best friend is a Jew. It’s regrettable to
see the injustice shown to this race…” (228).
Bessner’s writing is crisp and clear, and especially in the chapter on the Battle of Hong
Kong and the chapter on Dieppe, her descriptions are often visceral, at least partly
reflecting her background as a journalist. The last chapter, “Kaddish for D-Day”,
is memorable though difficult to read, as she recounts how family members have
remembered and honoured those who died in the war. The book pushes back against
some scholars who have suggested that most Jewish soldiers did not experience
much anti-Semitism. She details the discrimination such soldiers experienced both
in the enlistment process and during their time in the armed forces. The majority of
the people she interviewed for the book said they experienced prejudice, revealing
the difficulties Jewish soldiers faced as they tried to fulfill what many saw as both
a patriotic and personal duty. The only reservation I have, and it is minor, is that it
is easy to get lost in the sea of names. Remembering who each person is, in what
branch they served and the details of their story, which may have been presented
several chapters previously, can be difficult. However, this is also one of the book’s
strengths, because Bessner interviewed so many veterans and their families who had
never told their stories previously. That we now have a treasure trove of information
to which we have never before been privy is beyond important and will help us to
fill out our understanding of Canada’s and the Jewish community’s war experience.
Near the end of her book, a nephew of one of the soldiers that Bessner chronicles
notes, “…we’re almost at the end of it, as far as any survivors of that time frame.” (253)
This is an important realization, and highlights part of what makes these two books
so valuable. Bessner herself expresses her regret that she did not start this project
sooner, and the resulting loss of so many stories that were not recorded in time.
Ultimately, taken together, Usher’s and Bessner’s books provide us with a view of
both the tree and the forest, giving us an intimate portrait of a Jewish soldier, and a
broad overview of the Canadian Jewish community’s wartime service, thus filling a
large gap in the historiography of Canadian Jews and the Second World War.
Jennifer Shaw
University of Western Ontario

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