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On May 8, 1945, the day the Allies declared victory over Nazi Germany, a 20-year-old infantry sergeant in the American army wrote a letter home to his parents in Queens, New York. The sergeant wrote little of the glory of victory. Rather, he recounted the tragedy of his people - the Jewish people - that he encountered in Germany and Bohemia in the last days of the war. He met six Jewish women from Hungary who had survived a Nazi death march. He remembered them speaking a "beautiful Yiddish" when they spoke of the terror they experienced.
The Jewish soldier also discovered a synagogue in ruins. The Germans converted the sanctuary into the city dump. The sergeant and another Jewish soldier tried to find German prisoners of war to clean up what was left of the synagogue, but their unit had to move out to another sector. There was no time to restore some dignity to the destroyed holy place. The infantry sergeant and his buddy used to throw German civilians out of their homes to make room to quarter American soldiers. "We've scared hell out of them by telling them we are both Jews," he wrote, reminding his family back in New York that those Germans had not yet encountered Jews who carried rifles and a heavy machine gun.
The American Jew who fought in the 97th Infantry Division in the last days of World War II - the writer of that letter home on the day of American victory - was the man who would later be my father. As a younger man, I idolized my father, believing he was a hero. And no doubt he was a hero. He was a proud American soldier who fought in a deadly war to stop Hitler from dominating the world. By entering the war against Nazi Germany after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America played a critical role in winning the war in Europe. While the liberation came too late for 6 million Jews, the Allies were able to rescue the third of Europe's Jews that survived the genocide. My father was a hero in that effort. Without America's entry into the war, no Jews would have survived the Nazi genocide.
TIME HAS PASSED. Ten years ago my father died. At the end of this month I turn 45. The more I peruse my father's letters, the more despondent I become. As an American, he was a fighter in a victorious army. But as a Jew, my father was powerless. He could do nothing but comfort the Jewish women who survived the genocide. He could do nothing to clean up a synagogue desecrated by Germans. All he could do was carry his rifle and force German civilians out of their homes, declaring defiantly that he was a Jew. He could do nothing to bring the dead back.
It was not in the interest of the government for which he fought to bomb the machinery of death in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Before the war, due to the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic atmosphere of 1930s America, the leading country of the free world did not find it in its interest to take in millions of Jews who would later be murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. As an American, my father was victorious. As a Jew, he was powerless.
My family's roots are in White Russia, known today as Belarus. During World War II, hundreds of the local Christians in White Russia participated in the massacres of Jews. The Nazis and their collaborators in Belarus murdered tens of thousands of Jews. The locals helped gather up Jews for execution and assisted the Nazi mobile killing units in the massacres. Radislaw Ostrowsky, the most notorious collaborator in White Russia, headed the White Russian puppet government installed by the Nazis. Franz Kushel, a police commander in the region, planned the murder of 40,000 Jews in 1941. Stanislaw Stankievich directed the murder of 7,000 Jews in the city of Borissow. Emanuel Jasiuk, wartime mayor of Kletsk, supervised the killing of more than 5,000 Jews in one day.
These men were all murderers. They also all became American citizens after the end of World War II and lived out their lives comfortably in New Jersey, living across the river from my former home in New York City. They were never arrested or prosecuted for their heinous scrims. Because of the realities of the Cold War, these killers were hired by a covert arm of the US State Department to engage in partisan activities against the Soviets in Stalin-dominated Eastern Europe. Because of Cold War politics - based on a genuine fear of Soviet aggression - America abandoned its policy and promise of searching out the Nazis and their collaborators and bringing them to justice. During the Cold War, it was in the interest of the State Department and the FBI to employ former Nazi collaborators. Of course, that was not the same interest of Jews in America or throughout the world. But that is the reality of politics.
IT WOULD BE remiss for me not to mention that American interests during the Cold War did jibe with Jewish interest in terms of US support for Israel. The "special relationship" between the American state and the Jewish state began in the early 1960s. President John F. Kennedy attempted to foster a relationship with Egyptian dictator Gamel Abdel Nasser - and failed. Nasser chose instead to ally his government with the Soviet Union. As a result, JFK turned toward Israel as a reliable and democratic ally. Under the Kennedy administration, the US sold its first defensive weapons to Israel.
The issue is not one of America's love for Jews or of a shared "Judeo-Christian ethic." It is one of politics and national interest. The alliance between Israel and America has benefited both nations in a significant way. One day in the future - despite Harvard professors who believe that the Israel lobby in Washington runs American foreign policy in the Middle East - there might be a divergence between American interests and Israeli interests.
Today, the possibility of a nuclear Iran represents an existential threat to Israel. Will the administration of President Barack Obama choose the path of negotiation, allowing the Muslim theocracy to develop weapons of mass destruction? Will a future American administration abandon Israel and placate the Islamic world? None of us can answer these questions. But let us never forget that World War II was not a war America fought for the Jews. It was a war fought in America's national interest. For most of the Jews of Europe, American victory came too late to save them from genocide.
The writer is on the faculty of Nova Southeastern University's LifelongLearning Institute in Davie, Florida.