A look back at the brave stories of Jewish Canadian Second World War veterans

Our lasting gratitude.

By
November 8, 2015 12:07
War veteran

War veteran. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATION BY OLGA LEVI)

For soldiers in Canada’s army in the Second World War, Sundays meant church parades. Catholics assembled on one side, Protestants on the other and everyone else, mainly Jews, stayed in the middle. The Christians went to their respective churches and the Jews were free for a few hours. One Jewish soldier recalls standing alone in the middle with another five of his compatriots. The next week, though, he says, almost everyone decided to be “Jewish.”

But being Jewish in the Canadian Armed Forces during the Second World War was nothing at all like standing on the sideline and watching. These proud men and women served with the greatest of honor, determination, and pride. They served on land, in sea, and in the air to protect their nation and their country.

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On May 9, 2015, 70 years have passed since Europe’s liberation. These veterans, most of whom are no longer alive, are on the verge of being all but forgotten. A rare memorial in a downtown city and a cenotaph that stands tall in a Jewish cemetery will be little cared about when all the veterans have passed on, the memories of the war are forgotten and the lessons of the war are no longer taught. It is up to us to help them make an impression on the history books.

Seventy years since they won the war, The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition takes a look back at their brave stories from interviews conducted with them in the previous decade.

Citizens of Canada, with the memories of the Great War fresh in their minds, knew that the principles of democracy and justice demanded their service. Out of a population of more than 11 million Canadians during the war, about 1.1 million Canadians served in the forces. Canadians were in almost every major theater of war, making a huge contribution to the invasion of Italy, and liberating the Netherlands.

Jewish Canadians did more than their part to help. Despite clear manifestations of anti-Semitism at the time, the Jewish community rallied to the cause. From a population of just more than 167,000 Jews in Canada, close to 17,000 of them – men and women – served in the armed forces. Another 2,000-3,000 are estimated to have served without listing their religion for fear of capture by the Nazis. In total, 196 soldiers were decorated and 420 were killed during the war, as well as many others who later died from their wounds, both physically and mentally. Canadian Jews served as one of the highest per capita contributions of any ethnic or religious group in Canada in the war.

Prior to the Second World War, Canada was not the loving, tolerant country that it is today. Just months after Hitler’s rise to power, Canada experienced a taste of anti-Semitism at the Christie Pits riot.

But these Canadian Jews didn’t lie down and accept their beating. They fought back. A virtue that they kept all throughout the decade and into the war, with many even making great contributions in Israel’s War of Independence.

Jews in the army quickly became one with the other soldiers in their regiments despite the anti-Semitism in the air. But for others, it usually took one incident to set the record straight.

Simon Goldenthal, who served with fellow members of the faith Ben Dunkelman and Barney Danson in the Queen’s Own Rifles reigment, remembered in the beginning of his service being called derogatory names.

But that didn’t last too long. “One day I was cleaning my rifle and I put a bullet right next to his head. That put a stop to it.”

When soldiers, Jews and Gentiles alike, though, were fighting for their lives, religion never got in the way. Harry Smith, an armorer posted at an RCAF station in Bagotville, Quebec, recalled that his fellow soldiers were like brothers to him even in the safety of Canada. And just like a family, the air force had unwritten rules in addition to its written ones.

“There was a rule in the air force: never talk religion or politics because you’d end up having an argument.”

Smith came from small-town Welland, Ontario. He carpooled with non-Jews, went to camp with them and his mother never turned down a hungry soul that needed a little bit to eat even during the Depression. But the reason Smith got along so well with everybody was about more than just his character. These were a determined bunch of soldiers concentrating on just one thing. “The truth was everybody was out to win the war.”

While Smith fought from the home front, other Canadian Jews fought in the key battles of the war. These veterans know it is because of their efforts that democracy was saved,but  those proud moments weren’t always at the forefront of their war memories. The physical pain, the soldiers said, was easy to bear. The psychological scars were the most painful. Al Rosen, another member of the famed Queen’s Own Rifles, dealt with both. Rosen began his military career in Canada. He had a job to guard the hydro towers at Niagara Falls from German planes. He recalled marching along the Niagara River but said “the only thing we would end up with was a stiff neck.”

Overseas in the Netherlands, he and his unit stumbled upon a Dutch farmer near the end of the war. She was so glad to see that these men were not Russians that she gave them fresh milk and eggs, considered a delicacy after all the powdered food the soldiers ate. That same day, just four days before the war ended, however, suddenly turned from great to horrible.

Rosen and his buddies were caught in the middle of a shelling. He was lucky enough to escape death that day, although the chunks of shrapnel in his body were painful enough. What hurt Rosen even more was seeing his friend, crouching right next to him, be decapitated.

Rosen never forgot that day. It was always his worst nightmare and he was constantly reminded of the small bits of shrapnel inside him every time he went through an x-ray machine at an airport.

Goldenthal also lived with the painful memories. About half a year before the Allied Invasion of Normandy, as company clerk of “A” Company, Goldenthal went to improve his writing skills in London.

When he came back he found out he lost his job. But a new job in the pay office didn’t matter to Goldenthal; at least he didn’t know that, not until D-Day. Goldenthal sat in the English Channel on that infamous morning, became seasick and took a look at the enormity of the operation. “You looked out and there were thousands of ships.”

Goldenthal was the last one to come off his landing vessel. He jumped in the bloodied water, waded through it, which was above his waist, and once he hit land he ran like hell to the sea wall. “I could see the carnage taking place in front of me like a panorama. I could see men screaming, dying, being wounded, losing limbs. It was frightening. I was scared stiff.”

What Goldenthal witnessed in those few hours was nothing compared to what he endured next. “It was my job to record casualties.” He received in a box the identity discs of 65 soldiers who lay dead on the beach and began to record them. Goldenthal felt sicker and sicker after each name he recorded. But the word sick lost its meaning when Goldenthal saw the name, George Dalzell. He was the man who replaced him as company clerk. Goldenthal remembered thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.” He just sat there in a daze. The beachmaster came by and saw the soldier who was as green as his uniform and gave him a shot of scotch.

Goldenthal finished his job and took the recordings to another clerk, but then went right back to the sea wall. “I cried like a baby. I cried for what seemed an eternity till I was all dried out.” Goldenthal went through the entire the war without a scratch, but this memory is more painful than any physical wound. Even when recalling this story, more than 60 years later, Goldenthal couldn’t keep his eyes dry.

Even though times were tough in the army, Jewish soldiers knew that all across Canada, and all across Europe they could find fellow soldiers and families that had the same background, the same values, and the same principles. When Jews needed a place to stay, to talk to someone who understood them or just needed to spend some time together for a holiday, these families opened their houses and hearts. Smith remembers how in the RCAF they bent over backwards for the Jews. They received a High Holidays leave for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and they were even allowed to take Christmas break though they decided to stay and help as it wouldn’t be fair otherwise. As well, every month he received five days off, “So you could take off the Jewish holidays, they wouldn’t argue.”

On bulletin boards there were ads from families inviting soldiers to a Passover Seder. Smith one time took the offer up from a family who lived upstairs, on top of a shop, near Chicoutimi, Que. The couple spoke French and Smith and his buddy spoke English. So, as the Europeans Jews lost their language in the war, Canadians on the other side of the world clasped to the Jewish identity that they had. This Passover Seder was different from all other nights; on this night they spoke Yiddish.

While the food was delicious at Seders, and New Year dinners, the food in the army was slop. Rosen remembers taking turns cooking and eating mostly mutton. “Most people before the war ate kosher. Where we were there weren’t too many kosher restaurants,” he joked. But on a more serious note, he says there was nothing Jews could do but eat pork when it was served. “You were just lucky to be alive every day.”

But food in the army meant something more than eating. Receiving a parcel from home gave soldiers that feeling that they were missed and their work was appreciated.

Sam Romberg, a member of the 1st Hussars, recalled that about the only kosher food he ate in the army was the salami that Rabbi David Monson, a Jewish chaplain, brought once in a while. The salamis, he said, were about more than just kosher food. The cured meats that came from Canada brought with them a smell of a warm, loving, Jewish home, where they maybe had hung in a house on Baldwin St. or Grange Ave. right in the heart of the Jewish Kensington neighborhood in Toronto.

And those smells weren’t just attractive to the Jewish soldiers. Everyone wanted to get in on the action. Sydney Bermack, a leading aircraftman in the RCAF who served overseas, recalled receiving a salami in a care package once. He was stationed on an airfield north of London and he and a Jewish companion decided to share the salami. As they unwrapped the salami, and he remembered it just like it happened yesterday, smelling so good, everyone came to have some. “We were just lucky enough to get a piece of the salami by the end.”

But those times and memories were almost from a different lifetime. In the final years of their lives, Rosen and his friends, who were mostly veterans, would get together every Monday to Friday at the Yorkdale Shopping Center in midtown Toronto. They arrived at 9 in the morning, had an early lunch, schmoozed a little more and then each went his separate ways. Rosen recalled at a time there were 50 of them hanging out together at the mall. A decade ago, 10 seemed like a big number. And now they are all gone. For Rosen, this was his retreat, a place to put aside old memories and enjoy the moments he had with the people whose company he really needed. “If I didn’t have this place I’d go crazy.”

Maybe the reason, according to Rosen, that the mall became a gathering destination for these men instead of a Royal Canadian Legion clubhouse is because “Jewish boys aren’t beer drinkers.”

But, Smith, for one, who also spent a good deal of time at the mall, felt that the treatment of these Jewish veterans was seriously lacking. He said he would have loved for there to be a real clubhouse to serve as another hangout for these veterans. Members of the General Wingate Branch 256 (named after the Christian British Army officer who was an ardent Zionist) have an office in the Zionist Center on Marlee Ave. in Toronto. The only place for veterans to gather was in the shared assembly hall, which wasn’t enough, Smith said.

A solemn tradition of the Jewish heritage is remembrance. Yet it seemed that the dues these soldiers paid for the survival of future generations didn’t receive enough returns. Exhibits that don’t have a permanent home, delays in the building of memorial monuments and government apathy characterized some of the main problems they had to deal with.

The Dutch, Romberg said, seemed to understand better the idea of recognition and gratitude. He returned to Europe in both 1990 and 1995 for the 45th and 50th anniversaries of the Canadian liberation of the Netherlands. He was one of the few chosen to ride in the lead tank in 1995. The Dutch were throwing chocolate bars and flowers just like it was 1945 and their country had just been saved.

When asked what his most memorable experience of the war was he pointed to that. Romberg, standing out in the open turret, made the front page of a Dutch newspaper the next day. That picture was blown up and placed on a poster in the front display of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center hospital in Toronto.

But 70 years after the war, it’s too late to dwell on past mistakes. Only a small portion of veterans worldwide are still alive, and it is imperative that the younger generations do everything to pass on these stories and do everything they can to make the lives of these veterans as pleasant as possible. In Israel, there are 5,000 Russian Second World War veterans, who will parade through the streets of the Holy Land this Victory Day. Yet many are forgotten the rest of the year.

It is not too late. We can still make a change. All around the world – by visiting veterans association clubhouses, asking to hear their stories and simply saying thank you. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of The Jerusalem Post – Christian Edition in honor of the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.


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