by Bernie Farber
Staff Sgt. Mimi Freedman was a native of Montreal. Educated there as well as in Belgium, she acquired proficiency in French, Dutch, Flemish and German. She enlisted with the London Ambulance Service on Sept. 27, 1939, following her brother Flight Lt. Sam Freedman, who was with the Royal Air force. Later on, she enlisted with the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.
Being in the ambulance service during the London blitz was an intense and hazardous job. Dozens lost their lives trying to save others; many were wounded during the course of the war. Freedman worked hand in hand with her male comrades; she was expected to pull her weight, and she did so with courage and aplomb.
Their task required a wide ranging skill-set: many ambulances were on the roads during the blackout while Nazi aircraft pounded the city with bombs. Countless of the wounded had to be tended to on the spot, and so knowledge of first aid was essential in what was effectively a theatre of war. In many cases, women like Freedman had to provide not just medical care but solace and comfort to those who were wounded or dying.
During the Second World War, Canadian Jews fought in numbers that far exceeded their proportion of the population. Seventeen thousand – fully 20 per cent of Canadian Jews of military age – fought on and under the sea, in the air and on the ground. Among those, nearly 2,000 were awarded citations, medals. Those who died in battle received full military honours.
Much has been written of the men who fought and served their country. Little has been said of the brave women who did the same. While women may not have served on the front lines, their work in other sectors added immeasurably to the war effort. According to Veterans Affairs Canada, “At the peak of wartime employment in 1943-44, 439,000 women worked in the service sector, 373,000 in manufacturing and 4,000 in construction.”
Women worked with strength and verve along with men in factories, on airfields and dry docks constructing fighter planes, ships and armaments. Many more women took over the running of family farms while their sons and husbands were away at war. Veterans Affairs Canada tells one story of an Alberta mother whose husband and nine sons left the farm to fight in the war.
She ended up “driving the tractor, ploughing the fields, putting up hay, and hauling grain to elevators, along with tending her garden, raising chickens, pigs and turkeys, and canning hundreds of jars of fruits and vegetables.”
Freedman put her own driving skills to use after she enlisted with the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC), where she served her country with great distinction. Trained as a driver, Freedman assisted with the movement of troops by land, sea and air. She served in Normandy two months after D-Day, stationed so close to Le Havre that she was able to witness the constant barrage of the town by the Nazi forces. As the war progressed, she was also tasked with moving vital army documents by truck convoy to Alost. There, given her proficiency in German and French, she took on the role of unit interpreter. Her language skills also came in handy when it came to checking translations of important German documents.
Freedman also played a crucial role during court martials, where she was used as an interpreter for the courts. Women were very rarely seen in this role and soldiers facing court martial had to agree to her presence. In each case soldiers welcomed her service, which for the time was noted as favourable to her war record. After serving the CWAC for seven years through both war and peace, Freedman returned to Canada on April 12, 1946. She was honourably discharged from service one month later on May 16, 1946. The previous year, on Oct. 1, 1945, Staff Sgt. Mimi Freedman had become the first Canadian Jewish service woman to be decorated for her dedication to the war effort.