Netty C. Gross

In Battery City Park in Lower Manhattan, not far from Fritz Koenig’s 25-foot-tall, bronze globe and fountain “The Sphere,” which once graced the World Trade Center plaza, stands the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. The two memorials, with the Statue of Liberty as backdrop, have a shared message in remembering the personal sacrifices made in the fight against evil.

Bringing this message into sharp relief is a recently opened exhibit at the museum that examines the World War II Jewish experience from a liberator’s rather than a victim’s perspective. “Ours to Fight For — American Jewish Voices from the Second World War” tells the story of American Jewish soldiers, men and women, who fought — and some of whom died — in the war against the Nazis.

With over 400 personal artifacts and 13 videotaped veterans’ interviews, the show opens with items from 1940 reflecting widespread sentiment against U.S. involvement in a war which, until the attack on Pearl Harbor, was perceived by some Americans as a foreign, if not a “Jewish,” problem. “The Yanks Are Not Coming, Signed Mr. and Mrs. America,” blares one sticker. Another reads “Ve Vant War.” An article in the catalogue notes that “claims persisted” in the early 40s that Jews were draft dodgers and that the army was rife with anti- Semitism. In fact, 11 percent of U.S. Jewry, some 550,000 Jews, did serve in the U.S. military during the war, a fact with social implications beyond the actual act of serving. The U.S. military took “certain steps to integrate Jews”; thousands of Jewish vets would come home and take advantage of the GI bill, pursue higher education, thereby accelerating their entry into American society and allowing them to stir U.S. support for an emerging Jewish state in Palestine.

In the video interviews, friendly-faced veterans now in their 70s explain why they served. Some were simply drafted. “I was a little Jewish kid from Brooklyn, 7,000 miles from home. What was I doing here?” recalls one vet about his tour in Europe. For others, however, it was a personal response to Germany’s persecution of the Jews. Victor Geller (U.S. Army) notes that he gave up his 4D rabbinical deferment “because I felt it was a Jewish war”; he would later help liberate Buchenwald, photograph the crematoriums, organize services for survivors and, with his mother’s help back home, connect some with American relatives. “I wanted those sons of bitches to know the bombs that are dropping, there’s a Jew up there doing it,” says Bernard Branson, a U.S. army air corps tail gunner (I would later take a psychology seminar he taught at Queens College). Branson and others like him refused to replace the H (for Hebrew) on their dog tag with a C (Catholic) or P (Protestant), though aware that should they be taken prisoner, they might be tortured or killed. Some 20,000 Soviet Jewish POWs were put to death in Auschwitz; the experience of American Jewish POWs is also explored.

Among the artifacts are the hopeful sign that hung in the window of Katz’s Deli in New York: “Send a salami to your boy in the army”; a U.S. Army-issued Talmud; a Torah scroll used by Chaplain David Max Eichhorn at the first memorial service held at Dachau two days before VE Day, together with a film clip of that service taken by U.S. Army photographers; and a page from a mahzor found in France by Cpl. Edgar Rauner and his letter home, which reads in part: “On the spot where a synagogue once stood, I picked up some leaves of a prayer book. It brought back memories of all the past happenings over here. I can assure you they shall not be forgotten.” Though Gen. Eisenhower ordered all U.S. soldiers in relevant vicinities to visit liberated concentration camps to know “what he’s fighting against,” the most wrenching section of the exhibit records the Jewish GIs’ confrontations with the camps and survivors. A photo of a stunned soldier, Joseph Wright, staring numbly at miles of corpses at the Landsberg camp illustrates the horror. It fell to U.S. Army chaplain Rabbi Herschel Schacter to tell inmates at “das kleine Lager” of Buchenwald, where Jews were tortured, that they were free. “There were hundreds of men,” remembers Schacter in a video, “a few boys lying on these stinking straw sacks looking at me from dazed bewildered eyes, skin and bones, more dead than alive. I stood there overwhelmed and terrified…

Instinctively, impulsively, I shouted in Yiddish, ‘Sholom aleichem Yidn, ihr zeit frei,’ continuing in Yiddish with ‘the war is over. I am an American rabbi, you are free.’ A few who could, approached me and touched my uniform. I went through this agonizing experience in barrack after barrack until I was exhausted.”

The exhibit also includes recordings of vets from other minority groups on their experiences. At the end, visitors can record their feelings on a two-minute video, which becomes part of the permanent collection. For many, doing so is a welcome catharsis.

Copyright c 2004. The Jerusalem Report

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