Jewish-American patriots

On this July 4, let us recognize some outstanding Jews who fought for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

A young David Geffen (center) poses with his mother and father at a military base in Mississippi. (photo credit: AVIE GEFFEN PICTORIAL ARCHIVES)
A young David Geffen (center) poses with his mother and father at a military base in Mississippi.
A patriot, according to the dictionary, is a person who vigorously supports his country, fights for it and defends it. Through the centuries, Jews were not allowed to be citizens or patriots in the many countries in which they lived.
Jews could participate in business but could not defend property. Yet when the Jews arrived in New Amsterdam (New York) in 1654, they quickly won the right to defend the cities, towns and villages where they resided.
From the Revolutionary War in 1776 to today, Jews in the United States have been outstanding patriots for their nation. On this American Independence Day, it is important to look at some standout personalities and images of the era.
Even before the Revolutionary War began in colonial America in 1776, Philip Moses Russell of Richmond, Virginia, had signed on a year earlier with the “patriots,” under the leadership of Gen. George Washington. A practicing Jew in Philadelphia at the Mikveh Israel congregation, he moved as a young man to the southern city, where he was married.
During the terrible winter of 1777-1778, Russell served with Washington at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. As a “surgeon’s mate,” he cared for the sick and wounded, since the American forces had been entrapped there by the British.
Russell’s presence at Valley Forge is documented in the US National Archives, distinguished as being the only known American Jewish soldier present for this historic event in the saga of American life.
At the time of the death of his seventh-generation direct descendant, Bessie Mayer of Wilmington, Delaware, an oval miniature of him painted in 1787 was handed on to the next generation, her son.
Let us move now to the Civil War, where “Yankee” Jews from the North and “Rebel” Jews from the South fought against one another. Jews were prisoners of war at Andersonville, Georgia, a major facility for the Yankee captives.
Nathan Levy of Wilmington, Delaware, fought with the northern forces under president Abraham Lincoln. He was taken prisoner and almost entombed in that Georgia hellhole.
When the war ended and he was released, Levy sent a telegram to his mother. “Finally freedom from prison – coming home soon.”
Seven Confederate Jewish POW s were sent to Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island, across the bay from Rehoboth, Delaware.
One of the seven, Max Neugas, was captured at the battle of Gettysburg in 1863. He was from Sumter, South Carolina, and had received some art lessons as a youth. To pass the time, he sketched black-and-white drawings of life in prison.
At the end of the Civil War, Neugas was released and moved to New York. His sketchbook survived and was purchased, and was returned to Fort Delaware in 1975 by the founders of the Jewish Historical Society of Delaware.
From 1906 to 1909, under president Theodore Roosevelt, Oscar Strauss was the first Jew to hold a prominent cabinet position: he was appointed secretary of commerce and labor.
Strauss grew up with his family in Talbotton, Georgia, then moved to New York City, where he and his brothers bought a small store that they transformed into the noted Macy’s chain. Strauss was the US ambassador to the sultan of Turkey on two occasions, and offered support to the newly arriving halutzim in the Land of Israel.
Moving to the front lines of World War I, in 1917 France, Julius Rabinowitz wrote a letter in Yiddish to his uncle, Rabbi Tobias Geffen, in Atlanta, Georgia. “The fighting has subsided a bit,” he noted. “So I thought I would send a few lines to you since I am sure that your prayers will help in the terrible battles we face.”
Rabinowitz was one of the over 100,000 American Jews who served under commander-in-chief Gen. John J. Pershing. “War is never easy, but Americans have a different way of fighting,” he continued. “They storm the enemy with thousands of soldiers in the hope that they will overwhelm their opponents. In such attacks I have seen many of my fellow soldiers, because of their bravery, killed by the shells fired in large numbers.”
Rabinowitz noted that he had been wounded, but that did not deter him. “The fighting was so fierce – I knew that my help was needed so I got back on the line – pain or not. Someday, after this is over, I hope that I can see you again. Love to all the family, especially Aunt Hene.”
With the rise of Hitler and Japanese hopes to rule part of the world, war was inevitable. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and the US commitment to enter the war, American Jews jumped in, both by volunteering and being drafted.
“On every front, from the South Pacific to the rugged hills of Sicily, from the jungles of Panama to the icy slopes of Attu, from the sands of North Africa to the European soil, on land, on sea and in the air, many of our fellow Jews are fighting in the uniforms of American armed forces,” Louis Kraft, director of the Jewish Welfare Board war efforts, concluded. “Everywhere, one finds among these military forces American Jewish men and women.”
After the war, it was revealed that Chicago Cubs catcher Moe Berg, Greek and Latin Prof. Moses Hadas and Hebrew Union College head Nelson Glueck had performed superb espionage work for the US.
“The US military had long been focused on the needs of Jewish soldiers around the High Holidays,” commented Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University. “In World War II this sensitivity expanded, as the reli-Protestants, Catholics and Jews became even more significant for their well-being.
“This monumental fight for freedom symbolized all that distinguished America from Nazi Germany,” Sarna continued.
“For Jews, having won greater acceptance in World War II, they took the next step, earning their place in society as a whole.”
One soldier who greatly contributed to the knowledge of the European battlefield was Irvin Citron. Drafted in 1943 after enrolling in Georgia Tech, he served with great distinction during the Battle of the Bulge – but even more importantly, he was a very perceptive thinker who was able to capture in writing the fury of that famous conflagration. Indeed, in the early 1990s, the English war historian board selected Citron’s description to be included in the history of noted battles in World War II.
He made aliya in 1950, leaving the US secretly because of his extensive work in the security field; he then served in the IDF, became a member of Kibbutz Hasolelim and earned a master’s in science at the Hebrew University. In 1957, Citron returned to the US due to his father’s illness, living there for the next 40 years until his death.
During his career he led many US government-funded scientific teams to develop various types of missiles and armaments.
An active Zionist and a fine Hebraist, Citron gave over 40 public lectures on Israel between 1970 and 1990.
On the well-known Guadalcanal Island in the South Pacific in 1943, Dr. Benjamin Fenichel of Philadelphia and Capt. Sidney Altman of the US Marines conducted High Holy Day services for two large Jewish troop contingents involved in the heavy fighting.
Shortly after Yom Kippur in October 1943, the American Hebrew weekly featured pictures of both men leading the services.
Fenichel’s children, one a writer and the other a physician, shared extensive information about him, especially a picture of their father blowing the shofar.
American Jewish physicians were most patriotic in World War II, with 40 percent of all of our fellow physicians serving in the various branches of the American military forces.
Altman, for his part, was a New Yorker who in the late 1930s, starred as the quarterback for the NYU football team. Initially, he served in the Marines as an athletic instructor.
Upon receiving a commission he was sent to the South Pacific command, where he led several major Marine invasions.
Growing up, he had been trained as a member of a synagogue choir in Brooklyn, so he was most adept at leading High Holy Day services. A career Marine officer, he rose to the rank of “full bird colonel” in the Vietnam War.
Well-remembered is noted baseball player Hank Greenberg, who enlisted in the army at the height of his career with the Detroit Tigers. Greenberg served with great bravery in the European campaigns. He returned to star for the Tigers, but was never able to reach Babe Ruth’s season mark of 60 home runs.
Greenberg made it to 58, even though anti-Semitic pitchers attempted to end his career.
MY LATE father, attorney Louis Geffen, joined the Judge Advocate Corps on reserve duty. However, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt shifted my father and a million others to active duty in January 1941, months before Pearl Harbor.
When my father was sent to his first military assignment in Mississippi, my mother and I joined him; she would have kosher meat shipped from Atlanta, our home, and cook amazing meals on one tiny burner.
In an expression of my own patriotism, and decades before I would realize my own aspirations to serve, my parents took me to an army supply store one day in 1942, at the age of four.
What a thrill to be dressed like my dad, even having on my uniform the exact same rank.
For Jews, this was a fascinating form of patriotism; for me, it was a special link to my father. Just thinking about the two of us as soldiers in dress, I drew close to him in my imagination even when he was on assignment in Oakland, California, and then overseas for over a year. I still recall every salute I received.
After the atomic bombs were dropped in August 1945, my father was assigned to the Gen. Douglas MacArthur military government team in Japan. “The Little Glass Eye,” a Japanese commandant, cited for his heinous treatment of captive American soldiers, was prosecuted by my father in Yokohama in December 1945.
As did many of my colleagues – chaplains David Saltzman, Alvin Berkun, William Lebeau, Barry Schwartz, Stanley Davids and Joseph Feinstein – I served during the Vietnam War.
Sadly, my successor at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, was killed in the war and buried on the Mount of Olives.
At my post, I came to know one of the exceptional Jewish soldiers in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War, Col. Jack Wolfson, an artillery officer. In the Vietnam War period, he was one of 300 Jewish officers of full colonel rank in the military service.
Four-star Gen. Norton A. Schwartz served for four years in the first decade of this century as commander-in-chief of the US Air Force. A native of Tom’s River, New Jersey, his father Si Schwartz was president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The visual depiction of World War II battles, both in photographs and drawings, can be found in synagogue bulletins and Anglo-Jewish newspapers. These depictions helped raise the level of American Jewish patriotism in civilian life to even greater heights.
In August 1945, Reader’s Digest told the story of eight WA CS, women soldiers, who were killed in a plane crash several months earlier. Most poignant for the American Jewish community was the Star of David that was dropped in memory of Sgt. Belle G. Wainer of New York, one of the eight, over the Shangri-La Valley in New Guinea, where the plane carrying these women had gone down.
We must never forget secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., who served under Roosevelt in the 1940s war period.
He was the one who finally made the president release the figures of Holocaust deaths up until 1943, even as World War II was still being fought.
As head of the United Jewish Appeal from 1947-1949, Morgenthau led the American Jewish community in the effort to free the DPs and create the State of Israel.
In the near future, under the leadership of IDF Gen. (res.) Zvi Kantor, a museum commemorating Jews from every country who fought in World War II will be dedicated at Latrun, next to the center of the Israeli Tank Corps.
Kantor will soon be contacting Jewish veterans and their descendants around the world to participate in this effort, to which he has devoted his life.
As July 4, American Independence Day, is celebrated, it is most important to recognize the patriotism of American Jewry. From the cabinet secretaries to the privates in the service, from the women who served on the assembly lines to all those who were air raid wardens, they clearly demonstrated their devotion to the USA.
We recall all of them on this great day in American history.