THE GOLDBERG BROTHERS’ LETTERS HOME SHINE A LIGHT ON THE DEVASTATION CANADIAN FAMILIES SUFFERED DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR.
The Goldberg brothers’ letters home shine a light on the devastation Canadian families suffered during the Second World War.
MAY 8, 1945, WAS A DAY OF THANKSGIVING AND CELEBRATION. OVER THE SIX LONG YEARS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR, CANADA ENDURED MORE THAN FORTYTWO THOUSAND WAR DEAD. AS IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR, THE CONFLICT SPARKED DIVISIONS ALONG THE COUNTRY’S FRENCH-ENGLISH AXIS OVER CONSCRIPTION. THIS SCHISM WAS KEENLY FELT IN MONTREAL, BUT ON VE DAY “THE CITY’S MILLIONS POURED FROM OFFICES, STORES, FACTORIES AND HOMES … IN A RIOTOUS CELEBRATION,” ACCORDING TO THE MONTREALGAZETTE.
At 5164 Durocher Street, however, the mood at the Goldberg residence was sombre. Eleven days earlier, Corporal Harry Goldberg had been killed in action, the second from the household to lose his life in the war. In 1941, his older brother Louis, known to all as Curly for his shiny, wavy hair, had perished in an air-training accident.
Like most Jews of that period, the Goldbergs were relatively recent migrants to Canada. Bertha, the family’s Yiddish-speaking mother, and her late husband, Joseph, arrived in Montreal in 1907 fleeing deadly anti-Jewish pogroms in the Ukrainian community of Zhytomyr.
Curly and Harry wrote hundreds of letters to their married sister Sara during the war. (None of her correspondence to them survives, a situation that is common because personnel rarely had means to keep letters.) Sara, whom the family saw as the matriarch, took care of her mother, including by excising upsetting passages as she read aloud the letters from overseas.
After the war’s end, she locked the correspondence away in a valise; the letters were not rediscovered until after her death in 1990. Shyrna Goldberg, the wife of younger brother Rubin, never knew
Harry and Curly but transcribed the correspondence as a retirement project.
Scholars often approach wartime letters with skepticism. Letter writers knew that military censors read their correspondence to remove details such as troop location, movements, plans, and strength. And, of course military men and women self-censored to avoid worrying loved ones.
Nevertheless, the Goldberg letters offer a unique glance into the brothers’ wartime experiences. Harry and Curly sent upbeat accounts but also wrote about faith, hatred, romance, death, and the importance of correspondence to their emotional and psychological well-being.
The first letters came from Curly. Writing in July of 1940 from the Royal Canadian Air Force training depot in Toronto, he told Sara of receiving his uniform and vaccinations and having his teeth examined. He assured her the food was “pretty good” and the fellows he met, though “swearing filthily,” were “very nice.”
Later that month, he transferred to a training centre in nearby Scarborough, Ontario. Noting he was the only Jew, he added, “the boys really like me and are very friendly.”
Curly was one of many Jews who felt an urgency to enlist. Determined to counteract the idea that Jews had not pulled their weight in the First World War, the Canadian Jewish Congress encouraged Jewish men to volunteer for military service and urged other Jews to financially support war drives. According to the CJC, 16,411 Jewish men and 279 Jewish women served in Canada’s military during the Second World War. Still, as Gerald Tulchinsky writes in Canada’s Jews: A People’s Journey, many Jews whose families had fled Europe felt no attachment to their ancestral home, including to Jews there. Some worried about mixing with Gentiles in the military or feared being captured by the Nazis. Many felt no loyalty to Britain or to Canada, where anti-Semitism was strong. Military tradition was alien to many Jews; in Russia and the Ukraine the military was viewed as a source of repression.
Curly wrote to Sara, “You see, ever since the war started I wanted to get into it but thinking of Mother stopped me.” He added, “I did not put on a uniform because of my love of England” but rather because of “enemy cruelty and discrimination against our people.”
In September 1940, Curly was assigned
to a British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Initial Flying Training School near Thunder Bay, Ontario. Within a month he had soloed and shown proficiency in “climbing, stalling, gliding, slow turns, steep turns and landing.” While bragging to Sara, he assured his mother, “I am being very careful when I fly.” Although he hated being away from home during the Jewish high holidays, he received some forty dinner invitations from members of the local Jewish community.
In early 1941, he relocated to Ottawa for advanced training. After twenty weeks he proudly wrote of being promoted to sergeant pilot and becoming the first Jew to get his wings; the second, he said, earned them three days later.
In February he was on a White Star liner bound for England. He was initially stationed in the town of Ramsay, south of Peterborough. With the air war still going strong, and its outcome in doubt, he was upset about having to wait at least six months before seeing action.
Subsequent letters sound like they came from a tourist, describing visits to popular spots in London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. He also mentioned going to a dance where he met a “nice little blond.” He added that she was Jewish, though he did not suggest a romantic relationship.
With Passover approaching in April, Curly pined for home. He asked for family photos and items such as a Jewish vurst (salami). In London, which he called “the Big Town,” he met a “nice girl … single and KOSHER.”
While saying he had plenty of opportunities to date British women, he insisted there was “no fooling around for me.”
By mid-June he was training in a Supermarine Spitfire with the Royal Air Force’s Operational Training Unit 53 in Middlesex, England, flying exercises over Wales. On July 7, he was flying alongside Sergeant Gerald Fenwick Manuel of Halifax, just north of Cardiff, by the coal mining community of Merthyr Tydfil. The two planes veered close, locked wings, and went into an uncontrollable spin. Curly crashed into a field, while the other plane smashed into a house. Both pilots died as did the occupants of the house: a woman named Doreen Cox and her two young daughters.
The Goldbergs learned of the tragedy by telegram.
Sara is quoted in the Montreal
Gazette, saying: “Louis was one of those who really believed in what he was doing over there.”
The pilots were buried on July 9, Curly in the Jewish cemetery among some five hundred gravesites stretching back to the 1860s. On behalf of the Merthyr Tydfil Hebrew Congregation and the Jewish Burial Board, an A. Moscovitch wrote Bertha, saying, “your son died a very brave and honourable death.” He also sent photographs “so that you could have … some idea of the respect shown to your dear son.”
In August 1940, Harry’s first letters started arriving. Writing from Camp Farnham, an infantry training facility in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, he expressed excitement over being given responsibility for all-night sentry duty.
He was soon relocated to the Chateauguay Barracks in Huntingdon, Quebec. His letters remained brief, typically describing training routines and his hope to move on to the fighting overseas. He also mentioned a young woman who “took a fancy” to him, but he insisted he remained loyal to Lillian, his girlfriend in Montreal whom he planned to marry after the war.
In late April, Harry was on his way to Debert, Nova Scotia, for training in armoured reconnaissance — the use of armed vehicles and tanks to gather information about the enemy. He proudly informed Sara that “it is the most dangerous job,” but he asked her not “to say anything about it to Ma.”
He described the increasingly tough regimen: “We have to get up each morning at 4.30 and lights out at 10 o’clock for about 8 weeks.” He was not impressed to learn that a mutual acquaintance to whom he had written informed Sara that he regretted enlisting. “I am perfectly happy here, so please change whatever ideas Bernie has put into your head.”
Harry’s next letter provided a fuller explanation of his frustrations. While saying he was “dam proud to be in the service,” he
AS THE YEAR DREW TO AN END, HARRY REITERATED HIS EAGERNESS TO GET INTO BATTLE AND REPROACHED THE MANY AT HOME WHOM HE BELIEVED WERE NOT PULLING THEIR WEIGHT.
claimed that “3/4 of the men” with whom he trained “are Jew haters.” He also claimed that too many Jewish recruits “swing the lead,” meaning they shirked their duties.
Although Harry offered no evidence for his assertion, he told Sara about a Jewish sergeant who often asked him if things were okay; of the five Jews with whom the sergeant enlisted, all had sought a discharge. “God dam Sara on Sunday afternoon or Friday night there should not be one Jewish boy walking along Park Avenue [a thoroughfare in Montreal’s Jewish district],” the letter raged.
Learning of Curly’s death, Harry insisted that they all should “thank God [he] was killed and not the other thing,” meaning he neither evaded his duty to fight nor was taken prisoner. He acknowledged, “it is very hard for you and Mom to take it on the chin that Curly is gone,” but he emphasized that they were not alone. “Curly was one of the many to give his life,” he wrote, and the “sooner you and Mom realize that … it will be easier on everyone.”
On August 8, Harry sent a telegram to say he would be coming home on a six-day furlough. But, almost immediately after returning to Nova Scotia, he was sent back overseas as part of Canada’s Third Division. He appeared to give Lillian permission to move on, writing en route to Britain: “Go out as much as you can … for I may be gone for a very long time and I think it is too much to ask any girl to wait that long.” To his sister Sara, though, he wrote that throughout the “whole trip [overseas] I was thinking of … what sort of wedding we could have.”
Harry, too, spent time in England seeing the sights; one letter described riding on the upper level of double-decker buses. He also promised to visit Curly’s grave, where Jewish leaders had invited him to provide instructions on a tombstone.
Although he wrote optimistically about soon joining the fray, like many Canadian soldiers Harry remained in England for years. Spare time was often spent pursuing women such as one Private Dorothy Hewitt, who drove trucks for the British Army. “We are going strolling in the park and it is fun for it is pitch dark for it is blackout all the time.” He insisted theirs was a platonic relationship and hoped that Lillian wouldn’t mind, avowing, “none of the girls here can come near her.” A letter the next month, however, profusely apologized for forgetting Lillian’s birthday.
Over the Jewish high holidays Harry received leave to attend synagogue and to visit with Jewish families. He wrote to Sara that “in the afternoon of Yom Kippur I met a very nice Jewish girl on Trafalgar Square” whom he described as “nineteen years old and very pretty.”
As the year drew to an end, he reiterated his eagerness to get into battle and reproached the many at home whom he believed were not pulling their weight, such as an acquaintance in Montreal who insisted on receiving a commission as an officer for enlisting.
“Curly had every chance in the world to get his commission, but that meant nothing to him for he wanted to do something for our race and family,” he wrote angrily. Harry lashed out about rumours he had heard that some Canadian troops were heading back home, and he once again focused on Jews, charging that “the trouble with most … [is] they are all looking for easy jobs.”
When it came to his younger brother Rubin, who had reached military age, Harry’s tone softened. “Let him try and get into college if he can. Then … let him take a crack at the COTC [Canadian Officer Training Corps].” Rubin soon enlisted in the Army, though with Curly’s death and with Harry overseas he was kept in Quebec throughout the war for compassionate reasons.
In the midst of his elation over being promoted to lance corporal, Harry learned that Lillian had fallen for someone else. “I feel so disgusted about it all now that I feel like going out and getting drunk.” He proceeded to burn her letter, all the while insisting, “I am no kid and I don’t take anything to heart.”
Around the one-year anniversary of Curly’s death, Harry finally went to Wales, where the Moscovitch family hosted him. He lobbied his family to send money for a headstone, arguing that to wait until the war ended was to ignore the lesson taught by their late father “not to put anything off.”
Mr. Moscovitch was advising the opposite because marble, typically imported from Italy, was unavailable. Local stone was expensive and not as durable. But Harry persisted. “If Mom can’t afford it, what’s the matter with the rest of the family,” he wrote. “Did Curly mean so little to you all?” Despite the financial strain, the family sent fifty-six pounds (worth roughly $4,000 today). Harry promised to return to Wales as soon as possible, partly because during his sojourn there he met a girl who, he said, “made my head spin.”
It didn’t take long for her impact to wear off. “It seems that every nice girl I meet, I fall in love with, but only until I meet the next one,” he wrote a week later. And indeed there was someone else soon. “I feel like shouting it to the rooftops. She is beautiful and young,” Jewish, and “filthy rich,” which brought problems before long; Harry thought she considered herself better than anyone else. “So again I am a free man,” he wrote, “but already have my teeth” in a woman named Rosalind, whom he described as “twice as beautiful.”
Despite his letters to the family about Curly’s tombstone, in early 1943 Harry announced that he would not be going
Sergeant Louis “Curly” Goldberg.
Curly’s funeral, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. The ceremony included two Spitfires performing an honour flyby. One of the pilots was killed a week later in France.