Veteran Stories:
James “Jimmy” Burstein


  • Dr. James Burstein, 2011.

    Historica Canada
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"I was working on prisoners of war. We did as good work on them as we did on anybody. Honestly, I didn’t deliberately jab them or I didn’t put in a lousy filling."


Well, I was in [University of Toronto] Dental School at the time. At that time, during the war, we were on an accelerated course. Normally the course took five years but they reduced it to four so we had less summer holidays. Then the last year that we were in school, last session, we could join the army, as privates. And while I was a private while I was in school, the day we graduated, we became lieutenants. And I graduated actually on V-E Day [Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945], one of the most important dates in the history of the world. We graduated as lieutenants and then, when I got out of the army in 1946, I was a captain. I remember when we were in school, there was one of the professors that made us all feel pretty lousy because one of his kids or one of his nephews or something was in the army and we were here, we were in school; as if we were avoiding the army. But we weren’t. I mean, I don’t think there was any guys that I know in our class that went in just to avoid service. When we were approached to join the army, most of, I think pretty well almost 100 percent of the class signed up. I think when I finally graduated, this is where the exciting part comes in. And I was a kid and I was looking forward to travelling. And I get my first posting. It was HMCS York [the naval shore establishment in Toronto, Ontario], which was in the automotive building at the Exhibition [Exhibition Place, Toronto]. And I was living at home. And I was so disappointed that I wasn’t going out of town. And all my friends, I had a friend of mine that was married at the time, he wanted to switch with me. Well, you couldn’t switch. And I’m complaining because here I’m still in Toronto. They thought I was kidding, I was so disappointed that I wasn’t going to travel. Then I had, I was there for a few months and my commanding officer, who was a bit of a prissy guy, one day came over to me and he said: "Jimmy, you’re being shipped out.", thinking I would be terribly disappointed. I said: "Great, where am I going? Hamilton." (laughs) Anyways, I finally ended up in Lachine, just outside of Montreal, on some [Royal Canadian] Air Force base. At that time, the Dental Corps was the Army - the Dental Corps looked after the Army, the Navy and the Air Force - but we were with the Army. Well, the Dental Corps, we looked after obviously the enlisted men and what was interesting, there was once I was working at a clinic, what was at that time Long Branch, just outside of Toronto and I was working on prisoners of war. We did as good work on them as we did on anybody. Honestly, I didn’t deliberately jab them or I didn’t put in a lousy filling. It was a joke because none of them admitted that they were German. “No, we’re from lower Slabovia, or we’re this, we’re that, we’re that.” No, we’re not joking. Maybe they’re Hungarian or maybe they’re something, but, none of them admitted that they were from Germany or Austria. And at that time, where they were being interned was up in Muskoka [Ontario], in a place which is now the Sands Hotel. It was gorgeous. That’s where they were prisoners of war. At the time, the stuff that we were given, we were given the foot pump to run the drill. Yeah, that’s right, a foot pump; can you imagine? And there were some guys that had their assistants pump the thing for them, but I pumped by myself because I wanted to learn. So can you imagine doing dentistry now with dentistry’s high speed, everything’s high speed, and using a foot pump to run it? In those days, you didn’t have disposable needles. They used to sterilize the needles in hot water and sometimes you’d use them until there was a barb on the needle. It was lousy. Believe me, dentistry was a little different then when I graduated. And there’s so much improvement in dentistry since then, it’s fantastic. Actually, for me, it was a very good, it was a bit like an internship. I was fresh out of school, so I was still learning and it was a nice place to learn. My only regret is, I had a chance to go overseas even after the war was over because the guys were coming back and I was so anxious to get into public life and start making a living and I really regret that I didn’t go overseas. At that time, it wasn’t a matter of being afraid of being caught in the war, but as I say, we were so, most of us were so anxious to get into private life. But that’s, what else can I tell you?
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