Second World War hero Pte. Devries exemplified the very best of Jewish honour

Second World War hero Pte. Devries exemplified the very best of Jewish honour
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November in Canada can be dreary and cold. It somehow seems fitting that this is the time that we recall the sacrifices undertaken on our behalf by ordinary yet exceptional Canadians: young men and women who served their country in the face of war. Many didn’t return. Many were wounded and had their lives irrevocably changed. Many suffered emotional trauma that we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And many served showing outstanding courage in the face of inestimable odds. One such soldier was a young Canadian Jew by the name of Michael De Vries.

I note his faith because it is little known that during the Second World War 16,883 Canadian Jews enlisted, almost 40 per cent of the Jewish male population eligible for service and 10 per cent of the entire Canadian Jewish population. This is the highest of any Canadian faith or ethnic group per capita at the time.

Indeed, a report from the RCMP in December 1940 claimed that “…The Jewish community as such has subscribed generously, away out of proportion not because they consider it a ‘Jewish’ war, but because they understand the clear cut policy of decency versus brute force much better than people who take their freedom for granted.”

Michael De Vries understood his duty as a Canadian and as a Jew. He was an immigrant to Canada. Born in Holland in 1914, he came first to British Columbia. He joined the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War and afterwards settled in Barrie, Ont.

As the Second World War broke out, De Vries enlisted with the Canadian Armoured Corps of Toronto. Interestingly, he was promoted to sergeant but relinquished his stripes in order to transfer to the Irish Regiment of Canada to fight alongside his brother Martin.

It was May 24, 1944. Pte. De Vries’ regiment was in Italy advancing from the Hitler line towards the Melfa River. This was no easy task. The road was nothing more than crude donkey tracks passing through enclosed olive groves and vineyards. These were crisscrossed by razor-backed ridges hampered by deep gullies and irrigation ditches.

Pte. De Vries set out on foot in search of gun emplacements. He discovered a Nazi machine gun post, which he kept under observation. At a moment he decided was right he moved in alone, disarmed six Nazi soldiers and took them prisoner.

Later that same day, Pte. De Vries set off again and on his own initiative discovered a Nebelwerfer gun position. Nebelwerfers were developed by the German Wehrmacht mostly to deliver smoke bombs and poison gas.

Three miles behind the enemy position he opened fire. In a furious gunfight he killed the members of the Nebelwerfer crew.

Upon his return at daybreak he was able to report that the area was free of German infantry and that the enemy was retreating, leaving resources, munitions and much else behind. This allowed the Canadian Battalion to move in large numbers and much more quickly than was planned.

Captain Samuel Cass, a rabbi, conducts the first worship service celebrated on German territory by Jewish personnel of the 1st Canadian Army near Cleve, Germany, March 18, 1945. During the Second World War 16,883 Canadian Jews enlisted, almost 40 per cent of the Jewish male population eligible for service. Library and Archives Canada, PA-174315

The next day Pte. De Vries and a comrade, Cpl. Lewis of Toronto, confronted a German gun emplacement. Cpl. Lewis reported that Pte. De Vries was like a “one-man army” destroying the emplacement. Tragically Pte. De Vries was killed in action during that heroic mission.

A Canadian military dispatch noted the courage of Pte. De Vries in a release that stated: “The outstanding initiative, superb gallantry and self sacrifice, devotion to duty of this soldier were in keeping with the highest tradition of service.”

Today as we contemplate an unprecedented rise in anti-Semitism and ugly rhetoric targeting Jews world-wide, it is good to think of the sacrifices undertaken by heroes like Michael De Vries.

He exemplified the very best of Jewish honour following the precepts of the legendary Jewish soldier Judah Maccabee, whose deeds are celebrated on Chanukah. Stated Maccabee, “It is better for us to die in battle than to see evil deeds against us and our sanctuary.”

May the memory of Pte. Michael De Vries be for a blessing.

Bernie M. Farber is the chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and the former CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress.

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