Morris Polansky’s mother was devastated when he signed up for service during the Second World War.
But that was simply the way things were, the 96-year-old veteran of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps recalled. He was speaking at a special Remembrance Day service in East York that focused on Canadian Jewish soldiers.
“Especially in a small town, there was a certain amount of peer pressure,” Polansky told the audience. “You were sort of obligated to join up — it wasn’t easy to stay back while all of your friends had already joined up and some were already gone overseas.”
Centennial College honoured the veterans on Nov. 10 in an intimate ceremony at the Royal Canadian Legion Hall, Todmorden Branch 10, on Pape Avenue.
The event was coincidently held on Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass,” recognizing the destruction of Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany in 1938 and the beginning of the Holocaust.
For Polansky and 17,000 other Canadian-Jewish men and women serving in the Second World War, fighting Hitler was twice as dangerous. In 1947 Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King called it a “double-threat” they faced, said Ellin Bessner, author of the forthcoming book Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and World War II.
“Not only were they going to save the world for freedom, democracy and social justice, but they were also going to save their own people from annihilation,” Bessner told the meeting.
Polansky’s family moved to Saskatchewan in 1894 after his paternal grandparents came in 1892 from Ukraine, which wasn’t a welcoming place for people of the Jewish faith.
Polansky was in the Grade 11 when the war broke out in 1939. When he tried to sign up for service, he was instead encouraged by two First World War veterans to finish his high school degree.
Taking their advice, he delayed joining the army until 1940, when he went overseas with his two brothers.
He recalls sailing on the SS Santa Elena, travelling from Liverpool through the Irish Sea and into the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean, as Germany had possession of France.
The Germans torpedoed Polansky’s ship, and he volunteered to throw life rafts over the ship to get people to safety.
“I was concerned about the Germans coming to strafe us, but fortunately it was starting to get dark, so there were no more airplanes coming down,” Polansky said.
Polansky and other crew members were in the water for four hours until an American ship saved them. They made their way north to France, Belgium and Holland.
Another speaker at the service, Gordon Lindsay, recalled his uncle, Gordon Steinberg, a Second World War pilot who died on duty.
“As catastrophic as the war was, it was really ideal for him because the one thing he loved, and never stopped loving, was airplanes and flying,” Lindsay said. “When the war started, he was very keen to enlist.”
Steinberg enlisted despite it being frowned upon by his family. After going to Palestine to recover from malaria, Steinberg was so taken by his connection to the land that he displayed a Star of David on his fuselage.
“He had no fears about flying against the Germans. He must have had no fears about his registering as Hebrew on his [enlistment] form, as well,” Lindsay said.
An image of Steinberg leaning against his aircraft, with the Star of David on clear display, has become a cherished picture of the family.
Steinberg made 91 sorties.
While the circumstances of his death remain unclear, it is believed that on his 92nd sortie “the plane had been shot up and he had parachuted out,” Lindsay said. “The guy that shot him down came back and strafed him as he was parachuting into the ocean.”
He passed in February 1944.
The ceremony concluded with words of the Legion’s dedication to recognizing the ongoing battle that soldiers experience upon returning home: post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“It is everywhere in our lives. The Legion has taken it upon themselves to say, ‘Enough of this, we must educate the population,'” said P.J. O’Neill, president of the Todmorden Branch. “To that end, the Legion will survive and we will educate not only this generation but the generations to come.”
The playing of The Last Post, the reciting of Jewish memorial prayer “El Maleh Rachamim,” and the reading of “In Flanders Fields” by journalist and Centennial instructor Malcolm Kelly closed the ceremony.