WINDSOR, N.S. – It’s 1918, and Jewish recruits from across Canada and the United States are being assembled at Fort Edward in Windsor, preparing to ship out to take on the Ottoman Empire for the British.
Unofficially called the Jewish Legion, they would soon make up five battalions in the First World War of the Royal Fusiliers.
They trained under the blockhouse, lived in tents that peppered the hill.
Among the recruits is David Ben-Gurion, the Polish-born Zionist who would later become the first Prime Minister of Israel. He trained at the fort with hundreds of other Jewish soldiers brought up from the British War office.
Among the ranks was Sol Alter, who also served in the Jewish Legion.
His children, Bernard Alter, of Virginia, and Iska Alter, of New York, came to the same site 100 years later to commemorate the centennial.
For both of them, it was a surreal experience.
“We came yesterday to look around the fort and really enjoyed walking around downtown,” Bernard Alter said. “It’s a gorgeous place, we’re trying to figure out where the tents might have been.”
Both said they were amazed by how friendly everyone has been since they arrived.
“This is Canada after all.” Iska Alter said.
“The thought occurred to me that we’re really close to being almost exactly 100 years from when my father was here,” Bernard Alter said. “He came up in July and would have trained for six or eight weeks here. The idea that 100 years later, that I’m standing on the same land, perhaps the same spot that my father would have stood, it does give you pause.”
Iska Alter said she tried to imagine what it would have been like for her father, a Jewish boy who grew up in the concrete jungle of New York, to find himself in the pastoral setting of Hants County before being shipped overseas.
“They must have been absolutely stunned by it all,” she said.
A university professor, Iska Alter cancelled her classes on Thursday to make it up to Nova Scotia for the special event.
“I don’t do that very often,” she said with a laugh.
“We couldn’t miss this.” Bernard Alter said.
A major milestone
More than 200 people gathered for the commemoration, under a large tent near where the legion would have trained and lived 100 years ago.
Several dignitaries gave remarks to those gathered, including David Levy, the Consul General of Israel for Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
Lucy Kleinerman, Shlicha of the Atlantic Jewish Council, visiting Nova Scotia from Israel, played the role of Paula Ben-Gurion during the ceremony, reading some of Paula’s letters between speakers.
“I had no idea Ben-Gurion was here in Nova Scotia,” Kleinerman said after the ceremony.
“I was really excited to learn that this place has such a significant meaning, both for Nova Scotia and for Israel,” she said.
“This community has been so welcoming; it’s just really amazing,” she added.
Kleinerman said Ben-Gurion has become of symbol of national pride for Isreal, with their busiest international airport bearing his name.
“Most of the trips in Israel, when learning about our history, (people) always visit the Hall of Independence, where he read the declaration of independence in 1948,” she said. “Every kid in Israel will know that he was the first prime minister.”
Pavilion in the works
Plans are underway to construct a centennial pavilion near Fort Edward at the abandoned public pool site. However, fundraising still needs to ramp up in earnest as the Jewish Legion Centennial Society continues to work towards its vision of building a permanent memorial to the fighting force.
Kleinerman said she wouldn’t be surprised if visitors from Israel and all over the world will come to Windsor to view the centennial pavilion when it’s built.
Lt. Jonny Barkhouse, of the West Nova Scotia Regiment, dressed as David Ben-Gurion, said he was honoured to read some of his letters during the ceremony.
“It was surreal to think that where my platoon trains right here, we had the Jewish Legion training in the not-so-distant past,” Barkhouse said.
“It was interesting to read what a soldier might go through back then, trying to communicate with their wife over letters,” he continued.
“When we go away for training now, it’s made a bit easier by the advent of technology.”
Jon Goldberg, chairman of the Jewish Legion Centennial Society, said they’re working hard to make the pavilion a reality.
“Today was the end of the beginning, which means we still have a while to go,” Goldberg said. “We still have to design a prospectus; we can’t just go to some stranger and ask for thousands of dollars without the proper material ready.”
Goldberg estimates the project could cost upwards of $1.3 million. He’s hoping to attract donors from Canada, the U.S., private benefactors and the different levels of government for support.
Goldberg didn’t have an estimate on how long it will take, but he’s hopeful that it will be complete in less than five years.
“The turnout today makes me very hopeful.”
Architectural renderings, which are subject to change, have been drawn up by the MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple architecture firm.
When asked what the town is planning to do with the pool land, Windsor’s chief administrative officer Louis Coutinho said council hasn’t made any decisions yet.
The land was up for sale for development purposes, but council has since taken it off the market pending a review of the Jewish Legion's history in Windsor and also the site’s connections with the Mi'kmaq and Acadian settlers.