- Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II by Ellin Bessner
In this documentary history based on case histories, journalist Ellin Bessner explores the history of Canadian Jews who served in their country's military during the Second World War. The 'double threat' in the title comes from a letter that Canadian prime minister, William Lyon MacKenzie King, sent to the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) in March 1947 thanking them for the contribution of Jewish troops to the allied victory. Bessner notes that since that time the Jewish contribution has received little attention in Canada in contrast to other minority communities. However, the total estimated number of Jews who served in the war is 16,883 of which 10,235 served in the army, 5,889 in the Royal Canadian Air Force, 596 in the navy, and 163 in other allied armed forces. These are not insignificant numbers.
In the early years of the war much of the Canadian military sought to prevent Jews from enlisting. Bessner notes that anti-Semitism was especially strong in the Canadian navy. However, the CJC and others in the Jewish community sought to counter this discrimination by encouraging enlistment. The CJC especially wanted to disprove allegations that Canadian Jews were not fully contributing to the war effort. It launched a true-life graphic magazine series entitled Jewish War Heroes modelled on the fictional comic books which were popular in the wider Canadian society at the time. Many of the Jewish war heroes were decorated by the Canadian government in recognition of their valour. Bessner provides case histories of some of these heroes. Serving in the Canadian military created challenges for religiously observant Jews, not least in terms of dietary laws. The Canadian military did not provide Kosher food. Until the war the Canadian military also did not provide for the spiritual needs of Jewish service men and women. The CJC had to overcome some initial resistance before the military agreed to permit a Canadian Jewish chaplaincy.
In the final part of her book, Bessner considers the impact of the war on the Canadian Jewish community. She first considers the issues arising from liberation in continental Europe. Many Canadian Jewish servicemen came face to face with the survivors of the Holocaust. This was a traumatic experience. Bessner then explores the diverse experiences of the Jewish veterans after their repatriation to Canada. Several hundred took up arms again in 1948, this time in Palestine, and participated in the war that led to the creation of the state of Israel. Bessner concludes with a chapter which explores various aspects of how the Canadian Jewish contribution to the Second World War has been commemorated since that time by the Jewish community, including those missing in action.
Although Bessner is not an academic historian, her extensive research for this book adds to our understanding of mid-twentieth century Canadian Jewish society. Her book is an important addition to the historiography of the Canadian Jewry. [End Page 264]