Eight days after the Sept. 1, 1939 German invasion of Poland, the Canadian Parliament voted to support England and France in their campaign to defeat Hitler.
For Canadian Jews, then numbering 165,000, the unfolding conflict amounted to a Double Threat (New Jewish Press, 358 pages), the title of journalist and teacher Ellin Bessner’s thoroughly documented and fascinating new book. Subtitled Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II, it is an anecdote-rich look at Canadian Jews’ participation in the war effort — a welcome and important addition to the historiography of that period.
The Double Threat phrase came from a letter, quoted in the book, from Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to the Canadian Jewish Congress in 1947, thanking Canadian Jews for their participation in the war effort.
Canadian Jewish soldiers, he wrote, had fought not only against “Nazi and fascist aggression,” but “also for the survival of the Jewish nation.”
The genesis of the book, Bessner writes, was the desire to gather in one volume the stories of her relatives and some of the estimated 16,883 Jewish men and women who by war’s end, had participated in the war effort – 10,235 in the army, 5,889 in the Royal Canadian Air Force, 596 in the navy, and 163 in allied forces. This total includes 279 Jewish women. Statistics show that 10% of Canadian Jewry at the time, some 168,000, stepped up to the plate. It was not an easy time for Canadian Jews. Anti-Semitism was very much alive, and the numbers served to answer the innuendo of those, such as Toronto Alderman Leslie Howard Saunders – labeled a “first-class bigot” by historian Gerald Tolchinsky – who said Jews should do more than just talk about fighting.
The smaller Jewish communities, Bessner writes, initially sent a higher proportion of their young to war. Bill Pechet of Cupar, Sask., had five sons, and one day gathered his three eldest and, and “with tears in his eyes,” told them, “You boys know what you have to do.” All enlisted.
One of them, Mitch Pechet, had been drafted by the New York Rangers and was playing for one of its farm teams. As his widow, Judy Pechet, explained, since many Jewish families had fled pogroms in Eastern Europe, their sons “were feeling very loyal and devoted to their adopted country … and prepared to put their best foot forward in the name of Canada.”
Of course, anti-Semitism, including acts of violence, was part of the cultural fabric, in English and French Canada, and was reflected in the armed forces recruitment, where in the early war years Jews had difficulty enlisting in the air force and especially the navy, considered nearly impossible, especially for officers, her research indicates.
Although Toronto’s Ben Dunkelman came from a well-heeled family, founders of Tip Top tailors, had attended the elite Upper Canada College and was captain of his own schooner, he never heard back from the navy after offering to serve. He eventually served with distinction overseas as a major in the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.
Dunkelman later volunteered with the Haganah during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and commanded the 7th Brigade that accepted the surrender of Nazareth, but refused, according to his unpublished memoir, to expel its mainly Christian Arab inhabitants. It became and remains the largest mainly Arab city in Israel.
War is hell, but none of the Canadians, including the Jews who were among the 1,783 men of C Force captured by the Japanese after the fall of Hong Kong, could imagine what hell would be. William Frederick (Zeke) Zaidman, as quoted in the Toronto Star, said: “The Japs rushed in and bayoneted my wounded buddies, took many V.A.D.’s (members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment) and the nurses and assaulted them. The rest of us crowded into a small room. Every hour a Jap would come in and pick out a poor wretch. His dead and mutilated body would be found later.”
Bessner’s thorough research brings together many harrowing and fascinating recollections, including anti-Semitism in the barracks, the result of hundreds of interviews and selections from many books, media interviews, memoirs, and university-level research that make it such a meaty and compelling read.
At the disastrous Dieppe Raid of August 1942, of some 30 Jewish soldiers who were among the Canadian contingent, 11 were killed, eight were captured, four seriously wounded. Only seven made it back physically unscathed.
No book of this kind would be complete without a chapter on heroes, and among them was Sgt. Moe Hurwitz of Lachine, who became the most highly decorated non-commissioned Jewish soldier in the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps. One of 13 children, and a talented boxer and hockey player, Hurwitz gave up on a possible hockey career after a tryout with the Boston Bruins to enlist with the Grenadier Guards. Because his brother had been captured by the Germans, Hurwitz was even more motivated in battle. In the push from Caen to Falaise after the Normandy landing, he earned a first citation after he leapt out of his tank to flush out enemy soldiers hiding in a village, and took them prisoners.
Six weeks later, in Holland, he wiped out a machine-gun crew hiding in a farmhouse, capturing and forcing 23 Germans to return to base with him. After his tank was set fire and he suffered burns, he scrambled into another, put a German gun out of action, and carried out two rescues, pulling a soldier out of a burning tank. A month later, Hurwitz died in captivity, after his tank was hit and he was seriously injured 500 meters behind enemy lines, some 40 kilometers north of Antwerp.
Bessner told her audience at a book launch this spring that she was told by Veterans Affairs Canada they plan to use her book to publicize and highlight Canada’s Jews’ participation in the war effort on their website for Remembrance Day.