Today, few members of Ontario’s Jewish community would identify as Communists. If anything, the word Communism is likely to bring up painful memories of antisemitic propaganda that sought to link Jews and Communists in the popular imagination. It may also conjure up images of anti-Jewish discrimination that took place in the Soviet Union. And while it is important to push back against what historian Paul Hanebrink has called “the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism,” it is nevertheless true that for major parts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were Jews who identified with, and in some cases joined, the international Communist movement. What is more, these Jewish men and women often made significant contributions to their communities. One such individual was Dick Steele (1909–1944).
Born in Montreal, the man who became known as Dick Steele was originally named Moses Kosowatsky. The son of Samuel Kosowatsky and Fanny Held, he lived in a laneway off Clark Street, where his father collected and recycled bottles. As a young man, he and his best friend, Bill Walsh (born Moishe Wolofsky), made the fateful decision to hitchhike across Europe. Upon running out of money, the two friends entered Soviet Russia, where they found jobs working in a factory. Their experience in Russia had the effect of converting both men to Communism. (Dick’s new name was a tribute to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, “the man of steel.”) Dick and Bill’s time in Russia is documented in their memoir From the Land of Despair to the Land of Promise.
Upon returning to Canada, the two became members of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) and soon thereafter showed themselves to be capable labour organizers. Dick made his way to Toronto, where he was appointed section organizer by the party. In Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood, evictions were a common occurrence, with residents being unable to make rent and mortgage payments amidst the economic downturn of the Great Depression. According to Cy Gonick’s biography of Bill Walsh, Dick and his comrades would organize “squads of neighbours [in response to the evictions] to block the bailiff’s entry, return the furniture [that had been hurled onto the street], and hook up the power where it had been cut off.”
It was while living in Toronto that Dick was introduced to Esther Silver. Esther had worked in the garment sector, and she shared Dick and Bill’s left-wing politics. 1940 was a pivotal year with Esther giving birth to twins Michael and John. Unfortunately, that same year saw the Parliament of Canada pass its controversial War Measures Act, which, among other controls, gave the Canadian government far-reaching security powers during times of war. In practice, this resulted in mass arrests, particularly of Communists, who were deemed to be pro-fascist on account of the German-Soviet Pact.
Following Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Communists the world over subsequently changed their tune and threw their support behind the Allied war effort. In November that same year, Dick wrote to the Department of Justice requesting permission to join the Canadian Army. He never received a reply. Instead, his home was raided in April 1942, and he was interned at Don Jail until September 1942, when he was transferred to Guelph’s Ontario Reformatory. During Dick’s internment, Esther wrote a letter to the minister of justice, appealing on her husband’s behalf.
Several factors conspired to alter the situation. One was the public campaigning of Communists. Arguably more important was realpolitik: the Soviet Union was now the country’s ally, and this made the population more tolerant of Communists at home. In response to these changes, the government began releasing internees in January 1942. Dick was not released until October 1942. By the end of that same month, Dick had enlisted with the army.
Dick died in combat on 17 August 1944. A tank driver in the Canadian Army, he was killed in Normandy, France. Before his death, Dick had asked Bill to care for his children should he die in combat. When Bill returned from the war—Bill, too, saw combat and participated in the liberation of France, Holland, and Belgium—he married Esther and became the father to Dick’s two sons. In 2017, Dick’s son Michael donated the accumulated records of the Steele-Walsh family to the Ontario Jewish Archives, where they are preserved today.
Consisting largely of correspondence between Dick and Esther written during Dick’s internment, the Steele and Walsh family fonds offers fascinating insights into a little-known episode of Canadian history: the internment of Communists during the Second World War. And because the letters speak to the very real sacrifices Dick made for his political convictions, they also tell us something about the allure Communism held for Jews on the Left in this period, many of whom saw Communism as a path not only to social justice but to the defeat of antisemitism.