War Cor­re­spon­dence

THE GOLD­BERG BROTH­ERS’ LET­TERS HOME SHINE A LIGHT ON THE DEV­AS­TA­TION CANA­DIAN FAM­I­LIES SUF­FERED DUR­ING THE SEC­OND WORLD WAR.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Jeff Keshen

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.

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