Veterans Day 2023

By Bill Simons

The May 4, 1943, edition of The Daily Item (Lynn, MA), published the soldier profile accompanying this article. From that clipping, a young soldier, across the decades, looks at us with confidence. Reference to the private’s induction neglects to note that he was not a draftee; he had enlisted. Nor is the motivation for his wartime enlistment – defeat of Nazi Germany – specified. Twice in the 50-word allotment, however, Shep Simons explicitly referenced his Jewish identity, noting his Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) affiliation and tenure as president of Lynn Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA), a non-collegiate fraternity of Jewish youth.

My father’s amalgam of World War II military service and pride in Jewish identity was far from unique. Within a year after Pearl Harbor, every eligible member of his AZA chapter entered the armed services. Three members of Lynn AZA died in the service of their country. During World War II, approximately 550,000 American Jews entered military service, more than 38,000 of them counted amongst the casualties. More than 25,000 Jewish soldiers, sailors and airmen received medals and citations for their courage and deeds. During World War II, the National Jewish Welfare Board published “Fighting for America: A Record of the Participation of Jewish Men and Women in the Armed Forces.” The book is dedicated to “young Americans of all faiths who are fighting side by side and making sacrifices in measures surpassing understanding, that America and the world might survive as the home of [the] free.”

Amidst the crosses atop World War II graves at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France, Stars of David mark the final resting place of Jewish soldiers. The Star of David in the photo that appears with this article denotes the grave of Private Abraham Goldstein, a native of Allentown, PA, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Saint-Lô on July 17, 1944. At the time of his death, Goldstein, a haberdasher, was 37 years old and married. 

The graves of several World War II Jewish soldiers who fell during the liberation of Europe were not properly designated, their remains buried under crosses. Inspired by Rabbi Jacob Schacter, Operation Benjamin locates the graves of Jewish soldiers whose religious preferences were not recognized at the time of internment. At each replacement stone ceremony, Schacter, inserting the name of the fallen Jewish soldier, declares, “[O]n behalf of the citizens of America, we thank you for your service, and... on behalf of the Jewish people, we welcome you home.”

Despite the service and sacrifice of Jewish soldiers, history and popular culture distort the role of Jews during World War II. Appropriately, the genocide that claimed six million Jews during the Shoah is the subject of numerous books and films. However, Jews were victors as well as victims during World War II. Relatively few of the many movies about American soldiers, even those featuring multiethnic units, acknowledge Jewish GIs. An exception is “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), directed by Jewish American filmmaker Steven Spielberg. In “Saving Private Ryan,” Stanley “Fish” Mellish, portrayed by Adam Goldberg, is part of a combat group that successfully rescues an American soldier held prisoner. Taunting German adversaries with his Star of David necklace, Mellish ultimately dies in a knife fight. 

From the American Revolution through the Gulf Wars, Jews have served in all of America’s wars. Nonetheless, canards about Jewish cowardice persist. That makes setting the record straight about Jewish military service vital. By digitalizing and rendering accessible the records of the thousands of Jews who served in America’s bloodiest conflict, The Shapell Roster of Jewish Service in the American Civil War is one of the important ongoing initiatives integrating Jews into American military history. Among the many significant documents domiciled in The Shapell Roster are the files pertaining to Edward Salomon, a Jewish immigrant from Schleswig, who assumed command of a regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg and performed heroically even when two horses were shot dead from underneath him. 

Contemporary Jews remain a notable American military presence. Identical twins Alexander and Yevgeny Vindman, the sons of a widowed Ukrainian immigrant father, respectively attained the ranks of lieutenant colonel and colonel. Wounded in combat, Alexander displayed a different type of courage in his testimony before the House of Representatives evidencing behavior by President Donald Trump that potentially compromised U.S. national security. Rachel Levine challenged barriers as an admiral, transgender M.D. and head of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Lieutenant Colonel Shawn Tabankin, commander of the legendary New York Army National Guard’s “Fighting 69th” battalion, a historically Irish Catholic bastion, received two Bronze Star Medals and is the protector of the unit’s iconic Kilmer crucifix, an ironic, yet proud, task for a Jewish officer. 

The price of American liberty and security is not cheap. Veterans – men and women from the diverse religious, ethnic and racial mosaic that comprise America – have paid a steep price. This Veterans Day, thank all those who have served and continue to serve in the U.S. armed forces.