Obituary: Joe Levitt, Soldier, hero, historian





Joseph Levitt, a Montrealer by birth, was a product of both Montreal’s famous Baron Byng High school, where many Quebec Jews (including Mordecai Richler) cut their teeth, and Harbord Collegiate in Toronto, where his family moved in the mid-1930s. He was a bright, intuitive young man who was offered a scholarship by the University of Toronto when he enrolled in its social science program.

But when war broke out while he was a student, Joe, an avowed communist, decided his education would have to wait. Despite strong opposition to all war, he and many of his Jewish friends felt it was their duty to sign up for active service to oppose fascism and the horrors of Nazism. In 1941, Joe Levitt became one of almost 17,000 Jews enlisted in the Canadian armed forces, which constituted more than one-fifth of the entire Jewish male population in the country. He enlisted in the Governor-General’s Foot Guards and served overseas for several years.

Joe became a hero, recognized for his courage, leadership and action in the face of extreme danger. As a Guardsman, Joe spent time in France, Belgium, Italy, Holland and Germany, where he was part of many dangerous battles. But it was in Normandy that his bravery became most apparent...

... It was in London where he met his future wife, Kari Polanyi Levitt, while he was on leave from active duty. After the war, she joined him in Canada in 1947, and they were married in 1950. Joseph’s contribution to Canada did not end with the war: He returned to his studies at the University of Toronto, where he eventually received his PhD in 1967. As a historian and professor at the University of Ottawa, Joe became an expert on influential Quebec politician Henri Bourassa, on whom he wrote extensively. Indeed, Joseph’s wartime experiences never fully left him. As an academic, he became very active in the fight against nuclear proliferation as a member of Veterans Against Nuclear Arms.

Joseph Levitt’s strong, calm demeanour led him to become a leader in the battlefield and an excellent teacher. The lives he saved, and the worlds he changed, will never be forgotten.


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