Study explores role of Jewish women on homefront

Paul Mayne // Western News

Women’s Studies and Feminist Research PhD student Jennifer Shaw Lander is collecting and analyzing oral histories of Canadian Jewish women who were active on the homefront or were girls during the Second World War.

The stories describe important moments in our country’s history – yet few talk about them, even fewer ask about them. That is about to change thanks, in part, to Jennifer Shaw Lander.

The third-year PhD student in Women’s Studies and Feminist Research is collecting and analyzing the stories of Canadian Jewish women from all walks of life during the Second World War. In doing so, she looks to fill a long-ignored historical gap.

“Did they feel a special responsibility because of their faith and what was going on?” she asked. “Were you one of the women cooking those holiday meals or hosting soldiers for Rosh Hashanah? Were you one of the many Jewish women who went to work for the first time during the war? What did it mean to be a Jewish working woman? Was there a special obligation as Jewish women to do such work? For what reasons?”

The stories she seeks are not common knowledge because few have ever asked the women about them. Even to this day, many of these women still don’t see how their stories were significant to Canada’s wartime efforts.

“It can be difficult interviewing these women because they don’t consider their stories important,” Shaw Lander said. “Women were taught working at home is what you do – it’s not work; it’s it not a job; it’s not valuable; you’re just expected to do it. They ask, ‘Why do you want to talk to me? I have nothing interesting to say.’

“I tell them we need to know because that information is not out there. We are part of the story and their particular experiences make up the history of Canada. I also want the Jewish community to be aware of it, because many are not.”

And Shaw Lander also understands the clock is ticking.

“These women are dying; the youngest I have spoken to so far is 88. This opportunity will not come around again to be able to talk to the women who were actually there. History gives us this one gigantic group of women; it glosses over the differences and diverse experiences in what it was to be a Jewish woman at that time.”

Shaw Lander has already met with a few women who have shared fascinating stories from working in an aircraft factory in London to the routine elementary school students followed when U-boats arrived on the shores of Nova Scotia.

“U-boats would come to the harbour and the alarms would go off. Since she was in school, she would help take the kids into the basement and, to keep them calm, they would sing Onward, Christian Soldiers,” Shaw Lander said of one interview. “Her mother would lecture her about how she could sing most of it, but she couldn’t sing Yoshke’s name. (Yoshke being the Yiddish name for Jesus.) That is a very Jewishly shaped experience, but none of that is out there.”

As a mother, Shaw Lander says her research takes on a new viewpoint in educating her children in understanding how Jewish women played a vital role in the overall war effort.

“I have a 6-year-old daughter. I want her to know her history. For my boys, too, we all have somewhere where came from,” she said. “These women are so fascinating, but they have to realize their stories are valid and their stories are important. They had a role in Canada’s wartime story and it should be out there and be known by more than just their immediate families. It should be in a history book.

“As a Jewish woman, it is an honour. They made a very valuable contribution and it should be recognized. They stepped forward valiantly as their husbands went off to war. To be able to put names to it will be nice.”

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SHARING YOUR STORIES

Women’s Studies and Feminist Research PhD student Jennifer Shaw Lander is collecting and analyzing oral histories of Canadian Jewish women who were active on the homefront or were girls during the war. She is also interested in speaking with the children of these women about their mothers’ work during that time. If you’re interested in participating, contact Shaw Lander at 780-237-0566 or by email at jmshaw@uwo.ca.