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From Germany to Israel: The Canadian Jews who served their people twice

Montreal’s Sydney Shulemson --standing beside his Beaufighter fighter plane --- became the most highly decorated Canadian Jewish airman in World War II winning a Distinguished Service Order and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Courtesy Alex Dworkin, Canadian Jewish Archives.
Many Jewish-Canadian servicemen who enlisted to fight in WW2 later fought in Israel's War of Independence

For the Canadians who served in the Second World War there were many motivations. Some signed up out of a sense of patriotism, others out of a desire for adventure, and others still for a means of steady income near the end of the Great Depression.

But Jewish Canadians had different motivations. As the recruiting officer who interviewed Joe Gertel, a 21-year-old enlistee from Montreal, wrote: “He was merely anxious to get into the front line and settle a score which he felt that he, as a Jew, should be allowed to settle.”

Jewish soldiers throughout the European theater of war had similar experiences which infused in them a sense of purpose.

“When they got there and they saw what was going on, all of them knew why they were fighting,” says journalist Ellin Bessner, author of Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II, a new book chronicling the little-known stories of the some 17,000 Jewish-Canadians who signed up to fight in World War II.

Bessner’s book -- which delves into the motivations of Jewish servicemen, the widespread anti-Semitism they faced, and the dangers of being identified as Jewish if captured -- is titled after a letter that Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King sent to the Canadian Jewish Congress in 1947, in which he described the dangers that Jewish servicemen faced as a “double threat”.

They were not only fighting against fascism, but for Jewish survival. Many had seen first hand the threat of Hitler’s Nazi Regime. As such large, a number of Jewish-Canadian servicemen were supporters of Zionism and their experience during the war only reinforced their support for a Jewish homeland.

It was therefore not surprising that many Jewish-Canadian servicemen also later re-enlisted as volunteers to fight in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Sydney Shulemson had served in the Royal Canadian Air Force Coastal Command squadron in north-eastern Scotland. Fighting in the air over the North Sea and Norway, Shulemson would become the most decorated Canadian-Jewish serviceman in WWII, being awarded both the Distinguished Service Order and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

In the months leading up to the Israeli War of Independence, Shulemson was asked by the leaders of the Haganah -- the pre-state Jewish paramilitary force in the British Mandate of Palestine which would later become the core of the Israel Defense Forces -- to work covertly for them in Canada.

Since it was illegal to recruit for a foreign army on Canadian soil, Shulemson’s job was to discreetly persuade experienced servicemen to volunteer for Israel. Through word of mouth and invitation only meetings, Shulemson recruited almost 300 men to serve as Machalniks -- foreign volunteer servicemen who fought for Israel’s independence.

One of those volunteers was Gerald Rosenberg from Hamilton, Ontario, who served in the Royal Canadian Navy during WWII. He was eager for the opportunity to bring his skills to help the fledgling nation.

However, the help of the some 4,000 mainly British, American, and Canadian “Machalniks” wasn’t always appreciated.

“The Israeli navy was resentful of these Americans and Canadian veterans telling them what to do.” Bessner says. “They weren’t really happy about it because they felt somehow that it was insulting that these people were telling them what to do.”

Ben Dunkelman had been a fervent Zionist from childhood. When he was 18 he worked on a kibbutz in the then British Mandate of Palestine and returned in the late 1930s to help found other settlements.

During WWII Dunkelman attempted to enlist in the Navy but was rejected because of anti-Semitism. Instead he enlisted in the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada as a private, eventually climbing up the ranks to become a major.

During Israel’s War of Independence Dunkelman took over command of the 7th Armoured Brigade during the push northwards in Operation Dekel.

Dunkelman was one of the officers who accepted the surrender of Nazareth in return for a promise to the town leaders that no harm would come to the civilians.

Not long after, he received orders from his superiors to expel the Arab residents of the town, an order which he refused to follow. His decision that day would eventually earn him the honorarium ‘the savior of Nazareth.’

Shulemson, Rosenberg, and Dunkelman were just some of the Jewish servicemen who had survived WWII and then turned around and put their lives on the line once again to found the Jewish state.

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