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Fighting the Devil: Canadian Jewish Service People in the Second World War

By Randy Pinsky

The inscription, “He died so Jewry shall suffer no more” on a Canadian Jewish soldier’s grave in Normandy, France haunted journalist Ellin Bessner. From this sparked a determination to give honor to the thousands of Jewish Canadian servicemen and women who stood up against Nazi Germany, their stories largely unknown- until now.

Remembrance Day is an auspicious time to think about the many who fought against the epitome of evil, and ensure their accounts are always remembered. 

The Time Is Now

“As Nazi Germany invaded and occupied neighboring countries in Europe…it soon became apparent that only a massive international effort could defeat the powerful enemy war machine.”

Canada would declare war in September 1939, right around the time of the Jewish High Holidays. 

17,000 Jewish servicemen immediately registered. With motivations ranging from patriotism (for ‘King and Country’) to loyalty to world Jewry and the determination to defeat Hitler, it is estimated that another 2,000 enlisted under either false identities or chose to not declare their religion in case they would be taken prisoner. Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and World War ll (2018) chronicles the stories of the hidden heroes who came to the rescue of their persecuted brethren.

A report from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police from December 1940 commented on the high rates of Jewish registration, “not because they consider it a ‘Jewish war’, but because they understand the clear cut policy of decency versus brute force much better than people who take their freedom for granted.”

“The Fight was Intensely Personal”[1]

Jewish servicemen were enlisting in a war fomented on anti-Semitism, but also confronted anti-Jewish sentiment at home and on the field. These included quotas in university programs and the Royal Canadian Air Force and Navy’s prioritization of those of “pure European descent.”

Some even changed their names to increase their chances of acceptance, such as Moishe Kosowatsky of Montreal who enlisted as the very unethnic-sounding ‘Dick Steele’. Many would experience prejudice on a daily basis, and have difficulty acquiring kosher food and getting time off for the Jewish holidays. 

A Proud Legacy of Service

Undaunted, they enrolled in numbers comparable to that of the larger Canadian society, with 40% of eligible males enlisting in spite of the small Jewish population at the time. They would also be among the most highly decorated in Canada, defending their country and the values it stood for.

100-year old veteran Larry Moldowan[2] recently spoke at Montreal’s Shaare Zion-Beth El synagogue and explained, “You just had to answer the call, that’s all it was. We didn’t consider the danger. When you’re young, you don’t realize it.” 

And the Jewish Servicewomen?

Though often relegated to a footnote, 5,000 Jewish women served in both World Wars, providing support, clerical, and medical assistance. They performed diverse roles such as wireless operators, nurses, and military drivers in World War ll as chronicled in “She Also Served: Bringing to Light the Contributions of the Canadian Jewish Servicewomen of the Second World War” (2017). 

From Fighting in Europe to Fighting in Israel

The war may have ended in 1945, but in the Middle East, Israel was struggling to gain independence from the British.

In May 1948, it achieved national statehood, but celebrations were short-lived as the furious surrounding Arab states simultaneously attacked the young country.

With a fledgling group of soldiers and a rag-tag air force, how could Israel possibly defend itself against professional armies?

As quipped by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

Switching Battlefields

In came the Machalnikim; ‘Machal’ being an acronym for ‘mitnadvei huz l’aretz’ or ‘volunteers from overseas’[3]. Many of these soldiers had just completed their service in Europe and were looking to restart their civilian lives, but instead, chose to go defend Israel in the War of 

Independence. 300 Canadians would join more than 4,000 volunteers from 60 countries, motivated by “a feeling of Jewish unity, particularly in times of major crises.”

The Machalnikim provided the direly lacking military knowledge and know-how, serving as the basis for Israel’s Air Force and developing the Squadron 505 early warning radar system. 

Halifax bomber Wilfred Canter flew directly to Israel following his service in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He offered to transport desperately needed supplies to the isolated Negev outpost of Dsom encircled by Egyptian forces, losing his life when the plane exploded from overheating (“These Jewish World War II Veterans Would Be Legends, if People Knew Their Stories”).

Another “certified hero of two wars” was Torontonian Ben Dunkelman of the Queen’s Own Rifles regiment. The first Canadian volunteer to arrive in Israel in early April 1948, he was publicly recognized by former Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin (Dual Allegiance autobiography). 

Always Remember

On November 11, 2011 (11-11-11), United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto dedicated a monument in honor of Jewish veterans, flanked by eternal flames. Joseph Warner, Chairman of the Toronto Post reflected, “Young people talk about wanting to make a difference, fix the world…70 years ago…other young people were called upon to fix a world that went off its rails. The least we can do is remember th[em], honour them and treat them with respect.”

Lest we forget. 


[1] Canadian Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence, the Honorable Lawrence MacAulay (B’nai Brith Canada Remembrance Day Ceremony 2022).

[2] Moldowan had worked in anti-aircraft artillery and was also commissioned to supervise the transport of two German prisoners of war. When organizing a dance in England, he invited female recruits from the nearby British army camp where Princess Elizabeth was stationed (alas, she was otherwise engaged).

[3] Director Roberta Grossman - featured in a previous Azrieli article for ‘Reckonings’ - also directed “Above and Beyond” about American pilot veterans of the Second World War who fought for Israel in 1948. 

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