TORONTO — Eugene Kats looked very distinguished in his side cap and navy blazer, which was pinned with dozens of military medals.
Kats, 90, fought with the Polish Resistance until 1944, when the partisans were absorbed by the Red Army. He was in the heavy gun division and part of the Soviet force that drove the Germans out of Russia.
Arkadiy Novokolsky, 93, was an engineer and pilot in the Russian air force. He developed a night-vision camera for reconnaissance work and flew missions to test the equipment.
Valentin Rabinovich, 93, fought in the anti-aircraft artillery corps of the Red Army and helped to break the siege of Leningrad, which lasted from September 1941 to January 1944.
Kats, Novokolsky and Rabinovich were among the Jewish veterans who were honoured May 8 at a celebration marking the 70th anniversary of VE Day, when Nazi Germany surrendered to Allied forces in Europe.
About 200 people gathered at the National Restaurant and Banquet Hall for this community event, which was an opportunity to highlight the contribution of Jewish war veterans, including those from the former Soviet Union and members of the group Jewish War Veterans of Canada. Speakers included MPP Monte Kwinter, former city councillor Norm Gardner, University of Toronto professor Anna Shternshis and entrepreneur Marat Ressin.
Shternshis noted that Jewish soldiers played a vital role in the fight against the Nazis. Of the 1.5 million Jewish soldiers who fought in the war, 550,000 were American and another third or 500,000 were in the Soviet Armed Forces. “Some of the soldiers who fought against fascism are here in this room.”
She said that many Soviet Jews who served were over-represented in the infantry, where they were very vulnerable. Many of these Jewish infantrymen were killed.
However, Shternshis pointed out that Ukrainian Jewish infantrymen had a higher survival rate than their mothers, because Jewish civilians were targeted and killed by the Nazis. “Less than one per cent of the Jewish civilians who stayed in Ukraine survived war.”
Kwinter stressed the importance of remembering the history of the war and the ultimate sacrifice made by so many soldiers. “Victory came at a high cost.”
The evening’s lead sponsor, the Steinberg/Brodie family, provided funding in honour of the Soviet Jewish veterans.
Elen Steinberg, a philanthropist and entrepreneur, is also the founder of SovietJewishVeterans.com, a website that documents the individual histories of the Russian Jewish veterans who came to Canada.
She started the project in 2010 because there was so little information about Jewish World War II vets who had served in the Soviet Armed Forces.
Steinberg said she felt an urgency about moving forward on the project quickly because of the advanced age of the veterans. “I thought if not now, then when? We have to do something now to remember them. We’re running out of time.”
She did fundraising and also got money from UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, so she was able to proceed with the website, which today has more than 60 stories, complete with subtitles in English.
Stacey and David Cynamon, were also key supporters of the evening as were Renee and Ralph Wolfe. The Wolfes sponsored the evening’s entertainment in memory of Renee’s mother, Nina Goldstein. She was honoured by the Soviet government for helping children during the siege of Leningrad. Her story can also be found on SovietJewishVeterans.com.
Other local organizations associated with the VE-Day celebration included Jewish War Veterans of Canada, the Azrieli Foundation, the Memory Project, the National Council of Veterans Associations, and SovietJewishVeterans.com.