Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Defeat of Nazism and Fascism
In his book A Coat of Many Colours, Irving Abella referred to the 1920s and the 1930s as “the dark years” in the collective history of world Jewry. While the Canadian experience paled in comparison to the European reality, Abella stated that Canada was a “country permeated in antisemitism.” In 1937 and 1938, the Canadian Jewish Congress reported that acts of antisemitism included barring Jews from hotels, beaches, golf courses, restricting employment opportunities and imposing quotas in universities in areas such as law and medicine. The emergence of fascist organizations such as Adrien Arcand’s Order of Oglus in Quebec and William Whitaker’s Canadian Nationalist Party in western Canada added to the tension and uncertainty that gripped Canadian Jewry. Many government officials harboured antisemitic sentiments. Prime Minister Mackenzie King feared that “Jews would “pollute Canada’s bloodstream” and therefore discouraged Jewish immigration. King’s deputy minister of immigration, Frederick Blair characterized Jews as “liars and cheaters.”
To be sure, Jews did not passively accept this state of affairs. Following Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, Winnipeg Jews organized a massive march throughout the downtown. Whitaker’s rallies and demonstrations were met by anti-fascist forces spearheaded by Jewish community activists. Marcus Hyman, a Manitoba Jewish MLA, was the guiding light in crafting an amendment to the Libel Act which allowed for the prosecution of individuals or groups responsible for defamatory pronouncements. In 1934, Winnipeg Jewish war veterans created the General Monash Branch (Royal Canadian Legion no.115) in response to fascism and antisemitism. In 1938 The Jewish Anti-Fascist League of Winnipeg called for the boycott of German made goods.
Though impacted by the scourge of antisemitism which wove its way into Canadian intellectual, religious and political circles, Jews displayed unswerving loyalty to Canada. When World War II erupted, Canadian Jews answered the call to service with commitment and resolve. Abella noted that seventeen thousand Jews enlisted, equal to fifty percent of those eligible. Jewish enrolment was among the highest per capita of any ethnic group. Arthur Chiel notes that Manitoba Jews served in every area of the war effort. As of 1943, the YMHA Roll of Honour listed 357 service men and women. On the Shaarey Zedek Cenotaph are engraved the names of 68 Jews who died in combat. The YMHA became a focal point for the Canadian Red Cross as well as a centre of hospitality and recreation for Jewish and non-Jewish service personnel. A women’s committee was created to coordinate these activities and organize the distribution of comfort packages to service personnel stationed overseas. In addition the committee set up next-of-kin clubs to provide assistance and companionship to local family of overseas personnel.
As Chiel noted, “At the Second World War’s end the record of Manitoba Jewry’s effort indicated clearly that this people could legitimately share with their fellow Canadians a sense of pride in the sacrifice and courage demonstrated overseas and at home.”
Abella, Irving. A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada. Toronto: Key Porter
Chiel, Arthur. The Jews in Manitoba: A Social History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961.