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Why wartime Canada did not mark a "timid" Purim during WW2

Ahead of the Jewish festival of Purim, which begins on Thursday February 25 this year, some might feel that dressing up in costumes, holding carnivals, merry making and sending baskets of goodies to loved ones, doesn't really seem appropriate for our current pandemic situation. 

It is helpful, therefore, to take this look back at how Canadians handled a similar dilemma during the Second World War.

Purim, the Feast of Lots, recalls the salvation of the Jewish people living in Persia in the 5th century B.C.E. from a government decree of annihilation. 

In 1942, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin urged its readers not to hold "a timid Purim". That message meant a lot to Canadians during wartime, both on the home front, and on the front lines. It's a message that can help us today, under COVID-19.
Be the first to read the article here.

Photo by Brian Nelson, Unsplash.

A Musical Purim Gift from one of Canada's best known Jewish veterans

Earlier this month, I had the honour of speaking to the Ottawa Jewish Historical Society about how their community mobilized to help win the Second World War. With me that evening as co-presenter was Royal Canadian Navy veteran Alex Polowin, 96, who provided colour commentary about his experiences and memories of serving as an Able Seaman manning a big gun on HMCS Huron in the English Channel during 1944.

Polowin is a sought-after speaker by countless school groups, Dutch Liberation tours and media organizations around the world. He sometimes ends his talks with a little performance on his harmonica. But due to the pandemic, his in-person talks have had to be cancelled. So Polowin delivered a solo rendition of the wartime song "Lili Marlene" for us during the event, via Zoom.

He has graciously allowed me to share it with you, as our small gift for Purim.

Ottawa Jewish veteran Alex Polowin, 96, plays the wartime song "Lili Marlene" for the audience at the Ottawa Jewish Historical Society last week over Zoom.  The Second World War navy veteran was the featured guest at my lecture.

Soldier saved this Megillah scroll from a bombed-out building

Many Allied veterans brought souvenirs back with them from the Second World War, but I wonder whether the British soldier who stuck this religious artifact into his kit bag realized what he had taken home with him. 

This handwritten Hebrew scroll is actually a Book of Esther, and it is now located on the second floor of the Library and Archives Canada building in Ottawa. The entire story of how it got there remains somewhat of a mystery, but it was donated to the institution in the 1980s.

According to Rabbi Michael Kent, the senior curator in charge of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection at LAC, the scroll was discovered in a Montreal apartment belonging to a Second World War veteran. After his death, some neighbours went in to gather up his personal effects and found the scroll inside its battered silver case. 

As it looked important, they gave it to a relative who worked for the archives. 

"It has a compelling story about it," Kent said in an interview, adding that it was likely found in a bombed-out building.

While Kent does not know what country the scroll came from, he is pretty sure it was somewhere in newly liberated continental Europe.

Except for the dents in the case, the scroll itself remained undamaged. While the Megillah does not have any markings on the parchment or other means to identify the scribes or when it was made, curators think it most likely came from the home of a "regular" Orthodox Jewish person, rather than from a synagogue. 

"It's a standard Megillah," Kent said.

As to the identity of the soldier who picked it up, Kent doubts the veteran was Jewish.  Otherwise, the soldier might have tried to find the Jewish community in that area to return the scroll, before going home to England. 

In a blog post, Kent marvelled at the series of coincidences that worked to preserve a precious Jewish artifact, when so much of European Jewry and perhaps even the scroll's owner disappeared at the hands of the Nazi Holocaust. 

"These unlikely occurrences come together to form a powerful story of survival and a fantastic journey for this scroll that brought it to LAC," he writes.

Check the LAC website for details on how to schedule research visits during the pandemic.


Ellin will be speaking March 23: via Zoom. How Edmonton's Jewish community mobilized for WWII: Probus Club of South Edmonton March 23, 12 noon Toronto time.
Copyright © 2021 Ellin Bessner, All rights reserved.

Ellin Bessner · 951 Carlaw Avenue · Suite 149b · Toronto, Ontario, Ontario M4K3M2 · Canada

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