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Glaring omission

Jewish soldiers finally get recognition on Veterans Affairs website

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Veterans Affairs Canada’s website has been up and running for years, but it is only in the past three months that the site has had a section devoted to the contributions of Canada’s Jewish servicemen and women during the Second World War.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/11/2019 (1018 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Veterans Affairs Canada’s website has been up and running for years, but it is only in the past three months that the site has had a section devoted to the contributions of Canada’s Jewish servicemen and women during the Second World War.

That new section is the result of the efforts of Toronto journalist and author Ellin Bessner. Most of the information on the site is taken from her book Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War ll.

As a foreign correspondent based in Rome in 1994, Bessner had the privilege of covering Canadian participation in the 60th anniversary celebrations of the liberation of Italy. That assignment piqued her interest in the Canadian contribution to the war effort, and in 2011 she visited the Canadian War Cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer at Juno Beach in France. There, she was awed by the vast and beautiful landscaped cemetery.

Dale Reid Journalist and author Ellin Bessner visits the grave of fallen soldier George Meltz, whose headstone has an inscription: ‘He died so Jewry shall suffer no more.’

“They have row upon row upon row of graves and they are all the same-shaped tombstones, granite and rounded on the top, and they all seem to have the same cross emblems,” she says.

She knew, however, that Jewish servicemen would have Stars of David rather than crosses etched into the granite, and she began to search for some of those headstones.

She managed to locate a few interspersed among the crosses, and then one in particular jumped out at her.

The headstone was for a 25-year-old fallen soldier named George Meltz, and under its Star of David it bore the inscription, “He died so Jewry shall suffer no more.”

“It literally changed my life,” Bessner recalls, “because I needed to know who he was, and that launched me on the journey to find out about the Jewish experience of World War II from the Canadian perspective.”

That journey, which culminated with the publication of her book, led Bessner to the military archives in Ottawa, to the Jewish Heritage Centre in Winnipeg, and to conduct more than 300 interviews with veterans or with their surviving family members.

Among myriad discoveries, Bessner learned that more than 17,000 Canadian Jewish men and women, including nine of her own family members, enlisted during the Second World War and participated in all of the major battles. She learned that George Metz, who had been killed by a sniper on the beaches of Normandy, was one of 450 Jewish Canadian servicemen who lost their lives during the war. And she also learned that the unique story of the Jewish men and women who served was not included on the Veteran’s Affairs Canada website.

“There had never been anything on the Canadian government Veterans Affairs website about the Canadian story from the Jewish volunteers’ perspective,” Bessner says, “or anything about the double threat the Jews had to face fighting for king and country and freedom and democracy, and saving their own people at great personal risk of being victims of the Holocaust themselves.”

There was also no mention of the other challenges the Jewish personnel faced as a faith minority in the armed services, including intermittent official and unofficial anti-Semitism within their own ranks.

Bessner contacted Veterans Affairs to remedy that omission, and after she worked with it for three years, the site was revised. The website now boasts a section dedicated to Jewish Canadian Service in the Second World War, with subsections on history, heroes and profiles in courage, among others.

“It is for those who never asked for any recognition,” Bessner says. “Their legacy needs to be on a website that people go to for research purposes, and so their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who never knew what their grandparents and great-grandparents did, could find out.”

Once all the veterans are gone, she adds, the website will be one of the only ways to teach new generations about tolerance, justice and anti-racism, and the importance of fighting anti-Semitism and hatred.

swchisvin@gmail.com

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