American Jews in the Second World War

In honor of Memorial Day and Jewish American Heritage Month

U.S Army chaplains lead a Jewish prayer service in the Mariana Islands, 1944. The image was used in the award-winning exhibition, “Ours to Fight For: American Jews in the Second World War,” mounted by the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

No History Club this week; I’m recovering from vaccine #2.

Had we met we’d have talked about American Jewish soldiers in the Second World War, in recognition of Jewish American Heritage Month and Memorial Day.

If you didn’t know it was Jewish American Heritage Month, you’d be forgiven. Little has been said about it on social or in legacy media.

Rather, Jewish American Heritage Month has been marked by an increase in hate crimes and hate speech against Jews, both in the U.S. and around the world. The violence has gotten so bad it compelled President Biden and Vice President Harris to issue public statements.

(To see examples of recent hate against Jews, click here, here, here, here, here, here and here.)

Antisemitism in what-would-become the United States is not new. When the first Jewish refugees arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654, governor Peter Stuyvesant petitioned to have them expelled. The petition was rejected by the Dutch West India Company, but Jews were still barred from owning real estate and excluded from certain professions.

Circumstances improved slightly under the British. At the time of the American Revolution, approximately 2,500 Jews lived in the colonies. By the time of the U.S. Civil War eight decades later, that number increased to 150,000 individuals, most of them new immigrants.

The Civil War saw, perhaps, the most infamous state-sanctioned antisemitism in the United States: General Ulysses S. Grant’s Order No. 11, issued in 1862. Grant scapegoated Jews for smuggling and cotton speculation in the Border States. He responded by expelling all the Jews from the area under his command. After Jewish leaders traveled to Washington to appeal to President Lincoln, the order was rescinded.

By the 20th century, the Jewish population of the U.S. had grown exponentially. Immigration from Europe in the second half of the 19th c. and early 20th c. increased the American Jewish population to nearly 5 million—appx. 3.8% of the total U.S. It was largely the children of those immigrants who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Second World War, including my grandfather and great-uncles born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to immigrant parents.

Jews such as my grandfather came-of-age amid ugly public and private displays of antisemitism. Father Charles E. Coughlin had a national radio show on CBS that, at its peak, reached 45 million listeners. He defended the assault on Jews during Kristallnacht and spouted Nazi propaganda through his magazine, Social Justice. Nazis paraded on the east side of Manhattan in 1939 and the German American Bund held a rally at Madison Square Garden with more than 20,000 Nazi enthusiasts. More than 120 antisemitic organizations existed in the U.S. by 1941. This all occurred as the situation in Europe rapidly deteriorated. European Jews were being rounded up and deported to concentration camps, with those lucky enough to escape fleeing to Russia, British Palestine, England and the Dominican Republic.

(Some may recall the story of the M.S. St. Louis, a ship with 937 Jewish refugees that was refused entry into Cuba, the U.S. and Canada and sent back to Europe. Half of the passengers were murdered.)

None of this was lost on American Jews. After Pearl Harbor, when most Americans rallied behind the war effort in retaliation against Japan, American Jews were eager to enlist in order to fight Germany. “As a Jew, it was Hitler and me. That’s the way I pictured the war,” recalled Theodore Diamond years later in an oral history. “My father said, ‘They’re killing Jews,’ and I knew there was a purpose for my going,” said Frances Mann, who served as a nurse. “If we weren’t going to fight for the Jews, who’s going to do it for us?” asked Dorothy Jaffee.

American Jews lived mostly in major cities—New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago—and had spent their childhoods in tenements and immigrant neighborhoods. When they shipped out for training, it was the furthest they’d been from home. It was their first time seeing other parts of the U.S. and meeting other Americans. “Coming out of the dusty streets of Brooklyn, all tenements, and suddenly you see a new United States,” recalled Jacob Julius, who served in the U.S. Army. “You looked out and you saw these towering mountains -- it was just overwhelming.”

In training, Jews encountered more antisemitism. Sylvia Lewis, who served in the Air Service Command, recalled that ladies from small towns thought all Jews had horns. One male Jewish soldier was asked by a non-Jewish soldier why he didn’t have horns sticking out of his head; the soldier joked he’d had them surgically removed before he entered the service. Marvin Tolkin was given a Bible left to him by another Jewish soldier in his unit who’d been wounded. Inside it was a little note, “Watch out for the back as well as the front.”

Once overseas—whether in the European Theatre or the Pacific Theatre— antisemitism dissipated in the face of the realities of war. “All the anti-Semitism we left in England,” recalled Major Marty Silverman, U.S. Army. “All we wanted to know was if you wore the same colored suit and you were firing in the same direction.” American Jews experienced the same horrors of war as their non-Jewish combatants: disease, sickness, destruction, amputation, bodies blown apart, comrades killed in cold blood and massive devastation. Yet despite all the horrors, nothing prepared American servicemen for what they would encounter in Germany in April 1945.

On April 4, 1945, the 4th Armored Division and the 89th Infantry of the Third U.S. Army liberated Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald. The sight was so ghastly and atrocious that General Eisenhower ordered American soldiers and journalists to document everything, to ensure the crimes against humanity were recorded. German citizens were forced to tour the camp, after which the mayor of Ohrdruf and his wife committed suicide. Eisenhower is reported to have said, “We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, we know what he is fighting against.”

But American Jews in the U.S. Armed Forces had known what they were fighting for, even if they didn’t realize the full extent. In the ensuing weeks, American troops liberated Dora-Mittelbau, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Dachau, Gunskirchen and Mauthausen. For Jewish soldiers whose families had escaped Europe—either decades earlier or just before the war—it was a sobering and angering experience. Many still had relatives in Europe, and in the ensuing months they learned how many had been murdered. After liberation of the camps, John Horn wrote to his family:

“The curtain has fallen on one of the most inhuman and most horrible chapters of mankind. No eternity no power on earth can restore what has been destroyed. Leo, Luzie Arthur and family [European relatives murdered by the Nazis] will never die, they cannot die, they are there, wherever I am, they are closer to me now, than they ever were. In their names I feel obligated to fight this war to a successful end, it is far from concluded. I know if they could speak they would want me to go on.”

By the end of the conflict, 550,000 American Jews had served in the U.S. Armed Forces—roughly 4% of the total fighting force. 11,000 were killed in action; 26,000 were decorated for valor and 3 received the Medal of Honor (Ben Salomon, Isadore S. Jachman, and Raymond Zussman). For a generation the fight had been deeply personal. But it had also been a pathway towards greater integration into American society. Prior to the war, Jewish Americans were still barred from certain medical schools, prevented from living in certain neighborhoods and were classified as a distinct racial group by American immigration officials. After the war, Jewish families used the G.I. Bill to purchase homes, receive an education, and ascend into the American middle- and upper-classes. The war contributed significantly to their upward mobility.

In the minds of the G.I.’s who survived, the war had made them feel like Americans for the first time. Particularly for the Jewish G.I.’s who liberated concentration camps, the military uniform with the American flag held a profound significance long after the war had ended. Some didn’t want to take off their uniforms when they got home. “It gave me pride in who I was, what I was, and comfortable with that,” recalled Fred Bloom decades later. “We always had this funny feeling that we were different. We weren’t different there. We were all part of that great big thing called America.”

The great big thing called America continues to be navigated and negotiated by Jews 75 years later.

Happy Jewish American Heritage Month. Have a meaningful Memorial Day.

For more about American Jews in the Second World War, I recommend Deborah Dash Moore’s book, GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation.

Reminder: Join us on Clubhouse next Thursday, June 3rd as we welcome the Smithsonian’s Made By Us team to History Club and kick-off the first-ever “Civic Season.”

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