by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – On May 11, author, veteran journalist and podcaster Ellin Bessner pulled back the veil for Calgarians on the proud yet little-known history of Canadian Jews in uniform during World War II.
Bessner’s multimedia presentation, Hidden Heroes: Honouring Canada’s Jewish Soldiers of the Second World War, was part of a Jewish Heritage Month program co-sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta (JHSSA) and The Military Museums. The evening – moderated by museum director Dave Peabody – included addresses by John Hart and Karen Bassie, who spoke about the courageous campaigns of the First Special Services Force (FSSF), also known as the Devil’s Brigade.
Bessner’s 2015 book, Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and World War II, was the culmination of six years of research and travel after Bessner’s curiosity was sparked by the epitaph of a Canadian Jewish serviceman in Normandy: He died so Jewry should suffer no more.
Remembrance is part of Bessner’s birthright. Nine of her own family members – including one who fell – enlisted during World War II.
For the 17,000+ Jews who served (Bessner says the number may be as high as 20,000) the fight was personal. Bessner saluted those who served “then and now,” adding a kol hakavod to military members currently deployed to fight the wildfires plaguing Northern Alberta.
Her multimedia presentation began with Rabbi Samuel Cass – one of 16 Jewish chaplains – who led prayers in March 1945 in Cleve, just before Canadian soldiers crossed the Rhine. “It was Passover and they had a Jewish service to give the finger to Hitler after five-and-a-half or six years of war,” Bessner said, later sharing a clip of the service.
Bessner shared a historically significant and poignant letter sent by Gerald Levenston – then a Major – to his mother in Toronto, relating his surprising role in a German surrender ceremony in Bad Zwischenahn, Germany. When Canadian Brigadier Darrell Laing summoned him, Levenston wondered why someone of his rank would be asked to participate. Reading from Levenston’s letter, Bessner shared Laing’s no-uncertain reply: “I want a Jew to go tell those bastards what to do.”
More often, those who served did not share their wartime experiences with their kin, Bessner said. “Many spoke of the fun stuff,” said Bessner, referencing her Uncle Al Singer’s recollection of speaking Yiddish while capturing Germans. The rest, she said, they took to the grave.
“Tonight we are remembering not only the victory but also what it cost,” Bessner said, adding, “44,000 Canadians were killed in the Second World War. Of those, 450 were Jews, and many, many more were wounded.”
Bessner’s book title came from a post-war letter to Canadian Jewry from Canada’s Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in which he acknowledged that the war had been a “double threat” because Jews were also trying to save their people.
“It’s true….For the Jewish community, this war was the most important war. They were also going because it was their duty and to be loyal to Canada, of course, but they knew that the lives of their people were at stake.”
Illustrating that point, Bessner shared a page from a book once cherished by Hitler (and now in the collection of the Library and Archives of Canada) that ominously listed Jewish population figures in cities across Canada. “It wasn’t just a war over there,” said Bessner. “It was coming here too.”
“There were Fascist sympathizers all over Canada, especially in Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta too,” added Bessner, who described other acts of antisemitism on Canadian soil including the infamous 1933 Christie Pits riot in Toronto and the firebombing of a Quebec Synagogue.
It was a time when Canadian Jews were turned away from hotels and refused rental and employment opportunities. “There were no Jews on the Toronto Stock Exchange Board of Directors at all,” said Bessner. “Universities had quotas.”
Canada was one of the countries that turned away the St. Louis. That ship, later dubbed the “Voyage of the Damned” was forced to return to Nazi-occupied Europe, where all but 200 of the 900 Jewish refugees perished in the camps. “It took until 2018 for the Prime Minister [Justin Trudeau] to issue an apology,” Bessner said.
Bessner shared anecdotes about some famous Canadian Jews who served.
Monty Hall – the Winnipegger who later rose to fame as the original host of Let’s Make a Deal – was told “they weren’t taking Jews” when he showed up at a recruiting centre; he later toured Manitoba, entertaining troops stationed there. “He became a super famous Hollywood personality, but he always regretted that he couldn’t go overseas because he was Jewish,” Bessner said.
Popular Canadian comedians Wayne and Shuster – who later rocketed to wider fame on the Ed Sullivan show – enlisted, entertaining troops at home and abroad. “Forty days after D-Day they were entertaining them in [France] with bullets flying,” noted Bessner. “They always liked to say they were the only Canadians who got shot up from both sides, the Germans and their own men.”
Ben Dunkelman – of Tip Top Tailors fame – who later served as a Mahalnik (overseas volunteer) in Israel’s War of Independence, enlisted during World War II, saying “I have a score to settle with Hitler.”
Barney Danson, who lost three close friends and an eye in Normandy, later served as Canada’s Minister of National Defence in Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s cabinet.
Edmontonian Arthur Hiller, who was a flight navigator, went on to direct many iconic Hollywood films, including Love Story.
David Croll – who had already served as the first Jewish mayor of Windsor and would later serve as Canada’s first Jewish senator and federal Jewish cabinet minister – enlisted as a “Buck Private” in the Essex Scottish Regiment. “He wanted to prove to the world that Jews were not just sitting at desks pushing paper, they were at the pointy end of the stick,” Bessner said.
When the war began just before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbis took advantage of full synagogues to encourage young men to enlist. Many Jewish boys attended Yom Tov meals in their uniforms, provoking in their parents a mix of pride and anxiety, Bessner said.
Allan (Curly) Gurevitch from Rumsey, Alberta served, as did his brother. According to Bessner, Curly said, “We have to do our part to save the Jews of Europe.”
A few years ago when Jarome Iginla was the honouree at the Calgary JCC Sports dinner, he was given a copy of Double Threat and a letter from Bessner. In it, she wrote: “I imagine you will be particularly interested to read about Samuel Moses Hurwitz. Moe grew up in Lachine and he played hockey for the Lachine Rapide in the ’38-’39 and ’39-’40 seasons.”
Hurwitz was invited to an NHL tryout in Boston. According to Bessner, he told his family, “There is no time to play hockey when millions of my brothers are getting killed in Europe.” Hurwitz became a tank commander and the most highly-decorated non-commissioned officer in the army corps, Bessner said, adding that his larger-than-life persona was portrayed in the Brad Pitt movie Fury. Shot in the back and captured by the Germans in Holland, Hurwitz died a hero at 25.
180 Calgarians served during World War II, Bessner said, adding that at the time there were only 168,000 Jews in Canada, a mere 1.5 percent of the country’s population.
Because Jews faced rejection, the Canadian Jewish Congress opened centres in Toronto and Montreal where they provided information about which branches were accepting Jewish recruits,“…and what to say and what not to say,” Bessner said. Self-identifying as a Jew on one’s dog tag was dangerous in the event of capture, pointed out Bessner. Nevertheless, most Jews in uniform embraced the “H” for Hebrew. Sadly, they were often targeted by their comrades-in-arms.
Bessner’s uncle Leo Guttman grabbed a top bunk whenever possible. “He was afraid to sleep on the bottom, because he used to be kicked in the stomach and called dirty Jew when the boys came home drunk,” Bessner said.
“If you were a woman it was worse,” said Bessner, citing the personnel file of Rose Goodman, Adjutant Section Officer at RCAF Claresholm. “She practically ran the base where they were training people to be fighter pilots, “and yet they asked how much her father was worth,” Bessner said.
Notes on her file described Goodman as “attractive” and “Hebrew,” also noting that she went to Dalhousie University and that her father owned a New Glasgow, Nova Scotia department store. Goodman was killed in a plane crash in January 1943. She was 23, engaged to be married, and the only Canadian woman killed in the RCAF during World War II, Bessner said.
Manny Raber, of Medicine Hat, was shot down, betrayed and imprisoned by the Gestapo. “The only way out for him was execution,” said Bessner. “You have to read my book to found out how his Jewish identity played in and how a very sympathetic Catholic Padre saved his life.”
It was not unusual for multiple members of the same family to serve. Examples shared by Bessner included four Hanson brothers from Alberta; seven of nine sons of Ottawa Rabbi Max Maser; and five Altman brothers from Kamsack, Saskatchewan, one of whom was killed.
Denied entry to medical school because he was Jewish, Montreal-born Sydney Shulemson became an aeronautical engineer, later pioneering bombing techniques that destroyed numerous enemy jets and ships.
Described by Bessner as Canada’s “flying ace,” Shulemson was not promoted beyond flight lieutenant because someone called up the base asking, “What kind of name is Shulemson?”
He lived to the age of 97, getting married for the first time at 73. “He was a player, I guess,” chuckled Bessner.
Private Jack Marcovitch, of Montreal, helped to liberate Bergen-Belsen. Enraged by what he saw there, he nearly shot the German Commandant, Josef Kramer, who had swapped out his uniform in an attempt to escape, but a British soldier told Marcovitch to keep Kramer for the war crimes trial. Kramer was found guilty and executed.
Markovich never spoke about his experiences, but in the 1980s, his son spotted him in wartime footage preserved by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and used in a documentary film. Fortuitously, the camera caught the very moment Marcovitch arrested Kramer.
“As the camp was liberated, more and more people of Jewish faith were able to get there and they did what they could to help the survivors,” Bessner said.
Forbidden from giving the skeletal survivors “substantial foods” – which often proved deadly – they offered chocolate and candies.
Canadian Jewish personnel assisted survivors with the “great hunt,” helping them to search for any surviving kin, often posting letters via army mail.
Val Rimer – long-serving commander of the Jewish War Veterans of Canada: Post #2 – was himself part of the great search, Bessner said.
Rimer found an aunt who lived in France and learned her husband had been murdered, leaving her alone with five children. Rimer eventually brought her to Canada.
Sam Boroditsky of Winnipeg – who had served in the Devil’s Brigade – remained in Europe after the war, near Dachau.
“He stayed for eight months to help the refugees,” said Bessner, adding that Boroditsky requisitioned necessities of life from Germans living nearby, personally taking food from their houses to feed hungry survivors sheltered in a monastery.
“He was also told to give medical sustenance to a German officer who had been shot,” Bessner said. Trained to administer only half a vial of morphine, “He emptied a whole vial into the guy anyway,” said Bessner, adding that Boroditsky “regretted the fact” that the man somehow survived.
Bessner spoke to the efforts of Jewish soldiers to restore Jewish life after the war. A newsreel clip showed some of them forcing Dutch “quislings” to help rebuild a damaged Synagogue.
Jewish servicemen and women arranged picnics and parties for survivors. A photo included in a display by the JHSSA showed Rabbi Cass and Albertan Mimi Friedman distributing care packages to orphans for Chanukah.
Calgarian Stanley Winfield took stockings and lipstick to women at the DP camp near Bergen-Belsen because he “wanted them to feel human again.” Winfield had allies, Bessner noted, including his non-Jewish Squadron Leader and folks in Calgary who sent care packages for their boys and for the women.
Bessner concluded with some marching orders of her own. “Remembering is an active verb, she said.
Citing a B’nai Brith report, Bessner noted that 120 hate crimes were committed against Jews in Alberta last year, the highest in the prairie provinces and the fourth highest in all of Canada. “We have work to do,” Bessner said, decrying recent inappropriate remarks by politicians—including one in Alberta (she left her unnamed) – trivializing the Holocaust.
Bessner lauded the province’s recent adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism and the City of Calgary’s rollout of their antiracism strategy. “We have to think of the 450 Jewish boys who didn’t come home,” said Bessner. “If we don’t do this work, they may have died in vain.”
Bessner acknowledged audience member Shael Gelfand, whose father Robert served in the RCAF. Notably, Doug Foulkes, also in the audience, is the nephew of Guy Foulkes, the Canadian General who accepted the German surrender at a May 5, 1945 ceremony in Wageningen, Holland.
Fittingly, the evening concluded with the recitation by Temple B’nai Tikvah Rabbi Mark Glickman of the El Maleh Rachamim prayer in honour of the fallen.
For more information about Ellin Bessner and Double Threat, go to ellinbessner.com/.
To find out more about The Military Museums, go to themilitarymuseums.ca/.
Visit Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta at jhssa.org/.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter