Faced anti-Semitism from the Nazis as well as fellow soldiers, author Bessner says
Ellin Bessner stands outside the offices of Beth Tzedec Congregation, looking at the WWII scroll with the names of members who fought for Canada.
She points to one name, Harry Jolley, a dentist who earned two awards for his bravery during the battle in Germany. He and his fellow unarmed medic were pinned down by snipers. It was two days before VE Day and the small burg was not giving in to the allies. Finally, Canadian reinforcements arrived and the colonel for unit decided to bomb the German-held village as one final act of vindication.
It’s one of the many stories in Bessner’s recently published book, Double Threat, which shares some of the stories of 19,000 Canadian Jews who enlisted in the Canadian military. They all faced some form of anti-Semitism, not just from the Nazis but from their fellow soldiers.
“The fact that so many Jews went is embodied in this because there was a lot of prejudice,” the journalist and Centennial College professor says, standing before the scroll, which was commissioned by Group of Seven artist, A.J. Casson. “The navy wasn’t taking Jews. The air force wasn’t taking Jews. It was hard to be a Jew in Canada at that time.”
Back in Toronto, those of the Jewish faith were forced to remain south of St. Clair Avenue. That meant the synagogues were downtown. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the hardline discrimination began to lift, thus resulting in Goel Tzedec and Beth Hamidrash Hagadol amalgamating in 1955.
The outcome was Beth Tzedec Congregation, which was built on Bathurst Street north of St. Clair.
During the war, the desire among Jews to join the armed forces was high, even when facing discrimination.
“There weren’t that many Jews in midtown in those days because they were not allowed to buy property north of St. Clair,” Bessner says. “During the war there were covenants. It was not just illegal, but there was the under-the-table discrimination that no one would admit to.”
One veteran, who was featured in Double Threat, recalls those dark days when he witnessed anti-Semitism during the war. Lorne Winer, now 100, was in Normandy and would hear disparaging comments that one captain would make of another, Winer’s friend Captain Fred Pascal, an engineer.
Winer asked Pascal why he wasn’t doing something about it. “He told me to mind my own business,” Winer says.
Not a day later, he would see his friend dying by a tree stump with shrapnel in his belly. He had fallen victim to friendly fire.
“As I walked over and saw him dying, I thought it ironic … It shook me. It wasn’t that I suffered anti-Semitism, but [what Pascal went through] was an egregious level of anti-Semitism.”
Winer’s is one of many stories of veterans that come from across Canada, but many have their origins in Toronto.
Bessner’s book is available for purchase through her website and Amazon.