TORONTO — The Ontario Jewish Archives is looking for Jewish war veterans in the Toronto area who served in the Canadian services and other Allied forces during World War II so it can record their stories as part of the Historica-Dominion Institute’s federally-funded Memory Project: Stories of the Second World War.
OJA director Ellen Scheinberg
The archives – a department of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto – is partnering with the Institute, the Royal Canadian Legion’s General Wingate branch 256, as well as the Jewish Canadian Military Museum and the Canadian Jewish War Veterans for an event being held May 13 from 10 to 4 p.m. at the Lipa Green Centre. The interview day is part of a Dominion Institute project funded by the Canadian government.
The Historica-Dominion Institute will provide the interviewers, and organizers hope to conduct up to 40 interviews that day. The institute will keep the audio interviews, and copies will be provided both to the archives and the veterans.
As well, the archives and the institute are seeking artifacts from the veterans. The OJA is interested in acquiring items, while the institute will scan and keep them in digital form for its online archives.
Items of interest “run the gamut from medals to photographs and documents,” said OJA director Ellen Scheinberg. “It could be Swiss army knives, shoes, clothing, implements, or weapons, diaries – if they kept a diary, certificates, dog tags.
“We do have some artifacts,” Scheinberg said. “We’re hoping to expand our holdings, because UJA Federation is planning a Canadian Jewish museum, and ultimately we’d like to acquire more material.”
The archives does not have any interviews with Canadian Jewish War veterans, and the Canadian War Museum only has one, according to Scheinberg. The Jewish Canadian Military Museum in Toronto conducted “about a handful,” she added.
Of almost 17,000 Canadian Jewish men and women who served in World War II, only about 50 to 100 have been interviewed, Scheinberg told The CJN. Some of those interviews are in museums in Manitoba and Alberta, she said.
“Due to the paucity of interviews and the fact that the youngest veterans would likely in their early ’80s, we felt that we couldn’t afford to wait any longer to record their important stories,” Scheinberg said. “I think it’s an important partnership for us. We’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. There were so few interviews with veterans. It’s so crucial to get their stories as soon as possible.”
Proportionally, the Jewish community had one of the higher rates of enlistment during World War II – one-fifth of the adult population at the time, compared to one-eleventh of Canadian adults overall, said Davida Aronovitch of the Historica-Dominion Institute and communications co-ordinator for the Memory Project.
The institute – which already has at least five Jewish veterans among approximately 400 veterans represented in its digital archives – has also reached out to ethnic groups including Chinese Canadians, who, “like Jews, faced certain forms of discrimination, and chose to serve for Canada,” Aronovitch said.
Alex Levin, of the Jewish War Veterans of Canada, told The CJN that it is “very important to keep a legacy of Jews who were participating.”
There are currently between 100 and 150 paid members of the organization, Levin said. Others have passed away, he added.
As well, he noted, there is a separate organization called the Canadian Association of World War II Veterans from the Soviet Union, with a membership of almost 300, most of whom are Jewish.
Murray Jacobs, president of the Legion’s 135-member Wingate branch, plans to be interviewed as part of the event. A veteran of the Canadian army, he ran an instrument shop and spent four years overseas.
“It’s important for history to know that the Jews participated,” said Jacobs, who is turning 90 in May. As well, he noted, those who went overseas went because they had volunteered to do so. “If these stories are not told, nobody will know.”