As soon as I saw Shari Thorley’s name in my email inbox, I knew it was going to be bad news. And indeed it was: she was writing to let me know that her mother-in-law, Esther Thorley (née Bubis), of Ajax, Ontario, had died suddenly. Esther was 92, and passed away in hospital on Feb. 13.
I was so lucky to have met and interviewed Esther in the summer of 2016 for my book “Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and WWll” . The war veteran was living independently in her home filled with the photos and mementos of a life as a wife, mother, and, for my purposes, as one of only 279 Canadian Jewish women to volunteer in the Canadian forces during the Second World War. Her story features prominently in my book. Thorley was the youngest of eight children born to a Jewish immigrant family from Russia, who made their home in Toronto’s east end.
Esther’s brother Meyer Bubis, who was eleven years older than her, had enlisted in the Toronto-based Royal Regiment of Canada on Sept. 7, 1939, mere days after Hitler’s Nazi forces had invaded Poland to start WWll. Bubis would eventually be part of the ill-fated Allied raid on Dieppe, France in August 1942. After he was reported missing, their father fell ill and was admitted to Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
“I remember him saying something about being caught and Meyer being a prisoner and I can remember him saying that Meyer was clever enough to be able to find a way to come home anyway. But he was never caught. He was just killed,” Thorley recalled in our interview.
Her brother’s body was only recovered three months later, in November 1942, and buried in Dunkirk, France. Thorley, who had quit school after Grade 10 to work as a seamstress and also as an au pair, waited impatiently until the week she would turn eighteen in June 1943. She’d been reading in the newspapers about women now being permitted to enlist.
“Somebody from our family should be there,” Thorley said in our interview, explaining why she enlisted. Thorley decided to join the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, rather than the other branches of the military, in order to follow in her brother Meyer’s footsteps. She brought her mother with her to the recruiting office.
“They were very proud,” she replied, when asked if her family was against her decision to volunteer.
“My brother was a soldier so I thought somebody should be taking his place, since he was no longer there.”
Thorley would have loved to go overseas, but she wound up stationed in Vancouver for the duration of the war, as an army typist, processing what were known as Part Two Orders. These had to do with the movements of personnel to different postings. It also served as a pre-Facebook method for her to find out whether the men who asked her out were married, or single.
While many Canadian Jews in uniform experienced overt antisemitism and discrimination while they served, Thorley said she didn’t.
“I always made it very clear at the first opportunity I could get to let people know that I was a Jew and if they didn’t like it, that’s too bad,” she recalled.
When the war ended, Thorley came back to Toronto, where she met and married a Canadian veteran, Harry Thorley, who she described as handsome, and who looked to her like the wartime Hollywood movie star, Errol Flynn. Her two years as part of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps remained very important to her, even some seventy years later. In 2016, Thorley was one of the featured veterans invited as honoured guests at Centennial College’s Story Arts Centre Remembrance Day ceremony, and the Toronto Sun wrote about her in their coverage of the event.
“I learned a lot and I became a different type of person, too. I became more demanding, more outstanding, I became more honest, too,” she told me. “If I found a nickel or a dime or a dollar and no one was around, I’d take it. I would never do that after I got into the army. I’m still like that today, so I appreciate being in the army. It’s done a lot for me.”
You can read more about Esther’s story in “Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and WWII”, being published in March 2018 by New Jewish Press, from the University of Toronto’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies.