TORONTO — The late Sam Cukier, a Polish-born Canadian, served with the Polish and British forces during World War II. The late Cpl. Max Magder, a decorated Canadian soldier, was sent overseas with the Hamilton Light Infantry in 1942 and was severely wounded in France in the summer of 1944.
They were two of the 1.5 million Jews who fought in World War II, and yet, today not enough attention is paid to the contribution of these soldiers, according to historian Derek Penslar, professor of Jewish studies at both the University of Toronto and Oxford University in England.
“Many synagogues today devote a lot of attention to commemorating the death of IDF soldiers, but there is no Yizkor for the thousands of Jewish soldiers who died during the Second World War.”
Penslar spoke about the participation of Jewish soldiers during World War II Nov. 2 at Temple Emanu-El as part of Holocaust Education Week. Much of his lecture, co-sponsored by Fred and Bryna Steiner, was based on his most recent book, Jews and the Military: A History (Princeton University Press 2013).
Penslar stressed that Jewish soldiers in the Soviet Union, the British Empire and the United States were united against a single enemy. “Nazi Germany represented the most destructive enemy ever known to Jews.”
He noted that this was a major change from World War I, when Jews fought on opposite sides, depending on their citizenship. “In World War II, there was clearly one side for the Jews.”
Penslar said Jews had a high representation among both U.S. and Soviet forces. “Jewish participation in the Allied forces was 10 per cent, which was at a similar rate to that of the non-Jewish majority. Of the 1.5 million Jewish soldiers who fought in the war, one-third, or 500,000, were American and another third, or 500,000, were in the Red Army.”
About 100,000 Polish Jews had fought in the Polish army at the beginning of the war. “Many died. Many of them served in the various Polish armies in exile under British or Soviet command.”
Jewish partisans also fought in the French resistance, he said. “About 10 per cent of the Free French forces under General [Charles] de Gaulle were Jewish.”
Some 20,000 Canadian Jews volunteered to serve, about 10 per cent of the Canadian Jewish population. “That percentage was close to American Jewish participation rates.”
Penslar said many U.S. Jews praised the Canadian Jewish soldiers, because they were able to serve overseas from 1939 to 1941. “For American Jewish activists, Canadian Jewish soldiers were a source of pride before the Americans entered the war in 1941.”
Jews in the Red Army made the biggest sacrifice, because the Soviets lost more soldiers than most of the other Allied countries.
Penslar said Jews in the Soviet military held very high positions, because they had the most technical skills. “In the Red Army Jewish officers were the inventors and engineers… The expertise of the Soviet Jews was unparallelled. There were 10 times the number Soviet Jewish generals and admirals [about 200] than in the U.S. forces.”
He said some Jews of eastern European origin were divided – some were Communist and others were Zionist. “The Zionist cause was not universal. Many assimilated Jews were anti-Zionist at the time.”
Many left-wing Jews became supporters of the war following the German invasion of Russia in 1941, he said. “Those Jews fought to save socialism. They were no longer conflicted about the fight.”
He said some left-wing U.S. Jews weren’t anti-Nazi, because Germany was initially allied with the U.S.S.R. “That contradiction was resolved after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.”
At the outset of the war, the Labor Zionist group led by David Ben-Gurion, head of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, began negotiating with the British to set up a Jewish army.
Of the 30,000 Jews who served in the British military, 10,000 helped protect Palestine. In 1944, Britain permitted the formation of the 5,000-strong Jewish Brigade, which fought in the Balkans and Italy, Penslar said. “[The British] thought the Jewish Brigade would help morale and motivate soldiers. They didn’t want them to fight for Palestine. They wanted them to fight for British interests.”