The decision was difficult, even heartbreaking. After more than eight decades of operation and after raising $1 million for veterans, hospitals, seniors and others, Toronto’s General Wingate Branch 256 of the Royal Canadian Legion has voted to close its doors and give up its charter. The membership is entirely Jewish, one of the very few such veterans’ groups in Canada.
At one time, the branch had hundreds of members, most of them Second World War veterans, but by this spring, that number had fallen to 67. Only 25 full or associate members were able to cast ballots at the special meeting in late April to decide the branch’s future. The vote, held at the Baycrest Health Centre in Toronto, was 20-5 to close.
“It was tough,” said Stuart Rosen, the branch’s secretary, “but the time had come.” He said his wife, branch president Shelley Rosen, was in tears.
“It was really sad,” said long time branch member Max Dankner. Dankner, who turned 93 at the end of May, served in Italy where he was wounded but recovered in time to rejoin his Princess Louise Dragoon Guards Regiment in Holland near the end of the war.
Dankner said he voted in favour of closing. “It would have been very hard to keep going.” The branch raised money for charity mostly by selling poppies. Dankner said one or two of the members raised a thousand dollars each.
Lorne Winer, aged 100 and an artillery veteran who served in Normandy, admitted that “the decision has been coming for the last few years.” But, he added, he was grateful that the members raised a lot of money for hospitals and veterans. “We’ve done our job,” he said.
Branch 256 can trace its roots back the 1920s when it was formed as a part of the Great War Association. The group received its Royal Canadian Legion charter in 1934. Later it became known as the “General Wingate Branch” in honour of Maj.-Gen. Orde Wingate, a legendary, if eccentric, British commander who specialized in long-range operations behind Japanese lines during the Second World War. Wingate was not Jewish but became an ardent Zionist while serving in the Middle East in the late 1930s. He was killed in an air crash in 1944.
The history of Jews in the Canadian military dates back as far as the Boer War (1899-1902). Many Jewish soldiers served in the First World War and during the Second World War, up to 19,000 Jewish Canadians enlisted and took part in every major battle on all fronts. There were Jewish airmen in Fighter Command, Bomber Command and in the Far East. Those servicemen included many familiar names, among them clothing magnate Ben Dunkelman who was later a member of the Israeli armed forces, and former defence minister Barney Danson. Jewish members also served in the Korean War and in many peacekeeping operations.
Following the Second World War, there were Jewish Royal Canadian Legion branches in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. The Jewish War Veterans of Canada in Toronto, meantime, was home for other veterans. Over the years the General Wingate Branch also included some veterans from the Israeli Defence Forces, although there are none currently.
Not only Jewish veterans, but the entire generation of men and women who served in the Second World War, is declining dramatically. According to Veterans Affairs Canada about 50,300 veterans from the Second World War still survive with their average age being 92. However, the figure is almost a year out of date and the number today might be as low as 40,000. General Wingate Branch will hold a final farewell on June 24.