Sept. 4, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD
MONTREAL – At 19, William Guy Rosenthal of Montreal was already a promising journalist, working for Canadian Press and contributing to the YMHA Beacon.
But with the fate of European Jewry ever more perilous, he set aside his career ambitions and enlisted in the army in February 1942. On July 25, 1943, Gunner Rosenthal of the anti-tank regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery was killed in action during the Sicily campaign of 1943.
Rosenthal, known as Velvel in his family, lies in the Canadian war cemetery in Agira, Italy, near where he fell.
His younger brother, Larry Rosenthal, has never forgotten how William’s death irreparably broke the hearts of the family. Many decades on, Rosenthal continues to ensure that William and the 577 other Jewish servicemen in the Canadian Armed Forces who made the supreme sacrifice are not forgotten.
About 10 years ago, Rosenthal was instrumental in having a monument erected in the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery’s field of honour engraved with the names of all 578 Canadian Jewish servicemen killed in both world wars and the Korean conflict, and in organizing an annual commemoration before the High Holidays at the site.
This year’s memorial, on the 75th anniversary of the Second World War’s end, held extra meaning and saw the participation – virtually – of community leaders, rabbis, Canadian Armed Forces members, and politicians. Federation CJA partnered with Rosenthal to enable the event via videoconference.
Rosenthal said his brother believed going to war, and even giving his life, was necessary to defend the principles of freedom and justice and to not allow antisemitism and racism to prevail.
As the elder Rosenthal wrote in one of his last dispatches to the Beacon: “No price is too great to pay, no life too precious, to enforce our beliefs and ideals.”
For the first time, a veterans affairs minister took part in the Aug. 30 memorial and acknowledged that Jews served during the Second World War and other conflicts out of proportion to their numbers, for which Rosenthal gave his sincere appreciation.
Lawrence MacAulay, Veterans Affairs minister and Associate Minister of Defence, called the legacy of Jewish Canadians in the armed forces “a long and proud one. Over 17,000 volunteered between 1939 and 1945, coming from all walks of life and serving in all branches of the military.”
The Jewish population of Canada was only about 168,000 during the war.
Fighting was “intensely personal” for Jews in the Armed Forces, MacAuley said, and they played “a vital role in defeating an enemy that murdered over six million of their people. We honour their memory and all those who wore the uniform and those who continue to serve today.”
One of those serving today participated in the ceremony: Col. (res.) Alain Cohen, deputy chief of staff of the 2nd Canadian Armed Division.
Federation CEO Yair Szlak said those who fought enabled Jews to have the community they have today and “to live as citizens of the world.”
Rabbi Reuben Poupko, Quebec co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, regretted that too many today take this for granted.
Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, held a small book in his hands: Readings from the Holy Scriptures for Jewish Servicemen, given to him as a child by his grandfather, a veteran.
Published by B’nai Brith in 1939, the book provided comfort to Jewish soldiers, sailors and airmen, and reminded them that they were fighting for values that are rooted in Judaism, Mostyn said.
Not only did Jews serve in disproportionate numbers, but with distinction, he noted. Almost 200 received decorations.
Dorothy Zalcman Howard, president of the Montreal Holocaust Museum, said the museum remains committed to remembering and honouring the rescuers even generations later.
Other participants included: Allan Levine, president of the Brig. Frederick Kisch Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion; Rabbi Moishe New of the Montreal Torah Centre; Rabbi Zushe Silberstein of Chabad Chabanel; Rabbi Saul Emanuel, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Montreal; Israeli Consul General David Levy; Elyse Rosen, CEO of the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA; and Mayors Mitchell Brownstein of Cote Saint-Luc and William Steinberg of Hampstead.
The video of a wreath-laying ceremony at the monument, held in advance to conform to public health protocols, was shown, while the names of the dead scrolled in silence on the screen. The Last Post was played by Sgt. William Maher, and Ya’acov Bauer recited the memorial prayer.
Rosenthal later said the participation of the federal minister was significant.
“This is finally a statement from a high level of the Canadian government recognizing the sacrifice of Jews in the Canadian forces.”