One of the first books to be released by the Toronto-based New Jewish Press may turn out to be one of its most impressive. Double Threat, by Ellin Bessner, leaves no stones unturned in its telling of the full-blooded saga of the heroic participation of Jewish men and women in the Canadian military during the Second World War.
It’s a worthy topic, and one that, surprisingly, has never been covered in such depth before. For that reason, the book has the feel of a popular Canadian Jewish classic, comparable, say, to None Is Too Many (Irving Abella-Harold Troper) or Canada’s Jews: A People’s Journey (Gerald J. J. Tulchinsky).
Nearly 17,000 Canadian Jews donned military uniforms in the Second World War, out of a total of more than one million Canadians who served in the war. Bessner probably interviewed close to 200 veterans or their family members, and searched archives and libraries for written accounts of the experiences of others, including the 450 Canadian Jews who died while serving.
It was the tombstone of one such casualty – 25-year-old George Meltz, a bombardier in the Royal Canadian Artillery who died on July 8, 1944 – that inspired Bessner to write this book. It was likely Meltz’s young widow who arranged for the epitaph that Bessner found so moving: “Deeply mourned by his wife and family, he died so Jewry shall suffer no more.”
A theme of the book is the observation that Jews weren’t fighting merely to preserve democracy and freedom for ourselves and our children: for many, it was much more personal than that. Some described it as “fighting Amalek,” the ancient, perennial enemy of the Jewish people.
Flight Sgt. Herbert Wolf of Ottawa wrote home: “To me this is more our fight than anyone else’s and I pray to God before I die I will have the satisfaction of seeing some work of Nazism destroyed by my own hands.”
The well-known Ben Dunkelman of Toronto enlisted against his parents’ wishes because, “As a Jew I had a special score to settle with the Nazis,” he wrote. “As a loyal Canadian, it was my duty to volunteer to fight.”
The title, Double Threat, comes from a letter that Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King wrote to the Canadian Jewish Congress in 1947, expressing gratitude for the contribution of Jewish troops to the Allied victory. He correctly saw the war and Hitler as a “double threat” to Jewish servicemen, noting they fought not only against “Nazi and Fascist aggression,” but “also for the survival of the Jewish nation.”
Double Threat marches us into all the major battles and actions of the war, including the Battle of Hong Kong, Dieppe, and of course D-Day. It relates tales of Jewish POWs captured behind enemy lines and soldiers who helped to liberate the Nazi concentration and death camps. It examines the various branches of the armed forces – army, navy, air force, merchant navy – from the viewpoints of both men and women.
Wartime experiences run the gamut from signing up to coming home, including life in the barracks, adventures AWOL and off-duty activities such as dates with lady friends and liaisons with prostitutes. On the other end of the spectrum, the book explores the difficulties observant Jews had saying daily prayers, keeping kosher, and commemorating Jewish holidays.
Max Clement, who was serving with the 48th Highlanders in Italy, was initially mystified when he and many other Jewish servicemen were called back from the front for some unknown reason; he was amazed to learn it was so they could take part in a Passover seder. “We had a very, very fine meal and we had wine and everything else,” Clement recalled. “That was something I suppose we’ll never forget.”
Sadly, anti-Semitism raised its ugly head as well, and long before our Jewish servicemen and -women went overseas. Some experienced unfriendliness, and worse, right in their local recruitment offices. When it emerged that a certain colonel was rejecting all Jews in Windsor, the town’s then-mayor David Croll invited a photographer from the Windsor Star to go with him when he went to enlist so, as he later explained, “They couldn’t refuse.”
Toronto physician Jacob Markowitz was rejected, he was told, because he had been born in Romania. Later British Intelligence hired him because of his fluency in Romanian, and he was used as a spy. Markowitz always resented the Canadian military for denying him the privilege of wearing the maple leaf on his uniform.
Buoyed and swept along by a stream of anecdotes, Double Threat offers a grunt’s-eye view of the war from participants who were variously heroic, unextraordinary, even unheroic. Overall, Bessner celebrates the bravery of that generation of Canadian Jews who met the challenge of history at that very dark hour.
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Joseph Jacobson, originally of Montreal, was a prolific letter-writer to his father long before he entered the Air Force and was shipped to Britain in the Second World War. The letters continued as Jacobson joined a British squadron tasked with bombing raids on Germany. In his own words, Jacobson explains why he enlisted, his understanding of strategy, tactics, and the effectiveness of the air war.
Although Jacobson died at age 24 during an aerial raid near Muenster, Germany in 1942, his diaries and letters live on in this impressive book, written by his cousin, Peter J. Usher. “Even before he left Canada, Joey was convinced that he would be engaging in a mortal struggle for civilization: a total war in which there could be no partial or limited victory,” Usher writes.
Usher also used Joey’s father’s diary in compiling this lively and intimate account of one man’s war. Interestingly, Usher writes at greater length about one Canadian Jewish serviceman’s wartime experiences than Ellin Bessner did in describing the wartime experiences of all Canadian Jewish servicemen in Double Threat.
As poets have observed, there is sometimes more to observe in a single grain of sand than in an entire beachhead.