TORONTO — Murray Jacobs, 88, is the new president of the Wingate Branch 256 of the Royal Canadian Legion.
Over 100 Royal Canadian Legion General Wingate Branch 256 Jewish War Veterans and their families recently feted retiring President Sam Romberg, second from right,at the Branch’s 80th Anniversary luncheon in Toronto. Shown with Romberg, from right, are incoming President Murray Jacobs, Sid Gladstone and Al Rubin. [Tony Mihok photo]
Wingate Branch, originally called the Jewish Brigade, celebrated its 80th anniversary last month.
Jacobs, who now lectures to students at Ontario high schools and universities about his war experiences, joined the army in 1941 when he was 20.
His unit was first stationed at the Horse Palace in downtown Toronto, adjacent to the Ricoh Coliseum. Jacobs remembers being woken up at 5:30 a.m. every morning by a full marching band, which would parade down the halls in the event any soldiers were still in bed. Whenever that happened, “you woke up pretty fast,” Jacobs told The CJN.
As he came from a kosher home, it was difficult for him to adjust to eating “treif” army food, which he had to do as there was nothing else available.
Jacobs’ unit went through 30 days of basic training and then another 30 days advanced training in Ontario before shipping out overseas to England from Halifax. The unit ended up stationed in the south of England, near the English Channel. The Germans were directly across the channel in France. A mechanic, Jacobs had the job of repairing tanks.
The unit’s first mission took place on Juno Beach in Normandy on June 10, 1944, four days after D-Day. Jacobs recalls being strafed by German machine-gun fire during a surprise air raid on the second night. On one occasion, a noon German air raid killed many of his fellow soldiers.
“A lot of people professed to be brave – a lot of them are, a lot of them weren’t. But everyone who said they weren’t scared, that’s an outward lie. Everyone was scared, whether [they] admitted it or not,” Jacobs said.
When he and other Canadians landed at Juno and were pushing through the front line, they came across the bodies of some German soldiers, which the Germans had left in their hurry to retreat. The Canadians had to dig trenches to bury the bodies because of the unbearable odour.
“War is hell,” Jacobs said. “There’s good parts and there’s bad parts, but it’s hell.”
Although it was important for him to maintain his Jewish identity during the war, Jacobs said that he was proud to represent his country and its ideals, especially as he was fighting against an enemy that represented the antithesis of those ideals.
“I was also fiercely proud of being a Canadian. You were living in a country where nobody bothered you, where you could do whatever you wanted to do… and if we didn’t start fighting for these rights, we would lose [them].”
But anti-Semitism also ran rampant in Jacobs’ own infantry, resulting in more than a few unpleasant incidents. Of the eight Jews in the unit, four had rank, including Jacobs, but that didn’t prevent gentile soldiers from being disrespectful toward the Jews. Once, when Jacobs, who was a sergeant, performed inspection, one of the soldiers kicked over Jacobs’ mess tray.
He ended up confronting the soldier. “It took me a while to find him,” Jacobs said “and we went out. I took my jacket off, and he didn’t use those words anymore.
“You’re not allowed to hit anybody when you’re wearing stripes,” Jacobs added. “If I hit him with my jacket on, I could lose my stripes or be severely reprimanded for it.”