The Jewish War Veterans of America – alive and well in Israel

As the US ushers in the Fourth of July holiday, the ‘Magazine’ sits down with Dan Nadel and Max Epstein – American Jews who served in World War II.

Dan Nadel in his US Army uniform, between 1942 and 1945. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dan Nadel in his US Army uniform, between 1942 and 1945.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Our landing craft approached Normandy in 1944,” First Lt. Dan Nadel, 95, tells me with fervor, as he sits proudly in his Jerusalem apartment with his wife, Shirley, at his side.
“A seagull crapped on my head. ‘A lucky sign you will live through the war!’ a sailor manning the boat shouted to me. His prediction was as correct as it could be,” he reveals.
“I survived the fierce fighting of four years in World War II as a combat engineer. I experienced 25 river crossings, often under fire. Many of my fellow soldiers fell.” Then Nadel’s deep faith comes forward. “The good Lord had other plans, you see. To have survived seven decades ago was against all odds; I believe it was only possible by the grace of God.”
Becoming an expert in the field of seed production in the US, he, Shirley and their youngest son made aliya in 1977, working in his chosen field here.
As a US war veteran, he became an active member of the Jewish War Veterans of America branch in Israel. Indeed, he was profiled in the “Veterans” section of the Magazine by Abigail Klein Leichman last year.
Over half a century ago, JWV’s Israel branch was founded. At its peak, there were more than 400 members and posts in four cities; its Jerusalem post continues to be very active.
“After World War II, when I was living and working in Milford, Connecticut, our JWV post was so active, six of us built the Jewish community center building there,” recounts Nadel. “I felt that we had served America well, saving the Jewish people in the process, so I directed my efforts to that organization – which was founded in 1896 by a handful of Jewish veterans from the Civil War.
“Here in Israel, I have served as commander of JWV; we are committed to assisting the IDF in any way we can. In Haifa, JWV created the Roof Veterans Facility, where male and female IDF veterans can live because they have no other home. Annually, over 100 of the young veterans take up residence there as they begin their academic careers.
“As veterans living in Israel, we feel a deep kinship to the Israeli soldiers, helping those on active duty and those who have completed their service.”
Recently, for his 95th birthday, Nadel’s family and friends sponsored the writing of a Torah scroll – now being used in the combat engineer division in Mishor Adumim.
MAX EPSTEIN of Jerusalem is another JWV member. His story reminds us how Jews not born in the US became American soldiers.
“I experienced Nazism as a boy in Mannheim, Germany, where I was born in 1929,” Epstein recalls. “My father, Herman, a cantor at the main synagogue in the city, was imprisoned several times by the Nazi authorities in the mid-1930s, supposedly to protect him. My brother, sister and I, and other Jewish students, were forced out of the public schools."
“My mother, Jerusalem-born, sensed how serious the situation was becoming. She applied to the British Mandate authorities for certificates for the five of us to go to Palestine; since she had family in the US, she also applied for American visas for us. In 1937, amazingly, she heard in the affirmative from the British and American authorities. Because of the numerous Arab uprisings in the Land of Israel in the 1930s, she felt it would be safer to go to the US."
“How perceptive she was,” he remembers.
“We moved to the US, ultimately settling in Haverhill, Massachusetts, about 65 km. north of Boston, where my father was a cantor, shohet [kosher slaughterer] and the head of the local religious school.”
Here in modern-day Jerusalem, Epstein relates his experience in the US Army from 1946 to 1948.
“Growing up in Haverhill in the ’40s, we were blessed to be alive but were saddened by the reports we received in terms of the internment of Jews, and ultimately, how they were slaughtered by the Nazis and their allies in both Eastern and Western European countries.”
Epstein made aliya 28 years ago with his wife, Rhoda, after a career as an educator in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He was the principal of a high school there for several years before he retired, and actually became an educator due to his American military service.
“When World War II ended 70 years ago, massive numbers of military personnel, men and women, entered college using the GI Bill,” he explains. “As I finished high school in 1946, I realized that I might not be able to get into college. I volunteered, since there was no longer a draft, and entered the US Army in September 1946 for a two-year tour of duty."
“I did my basic training, but it quickly became clear that I was not going to be sent overseas. Assigned to the Signal Corps, I was at a number of US Army installations in New Jersey, Texas and North Carolina.”
Epstein experienced the establishment of the State of Israel in an unusual fashion. “In the winter of 1948, as the world awaited statehood for Israel, we were given a briefing on the Middle East by an information officer. I wasn’t sure what his background was, but for myself and the few other Jews in my unit, he came across as an anti-Semite explaining to us that there was no strategic reason for Jews to have their own state.
“Many people, then, thought that the UN member states felt guilty that so many innocent Jews had been murdered, with so little done to save them. The recompense was the creation of a Jewish state – Israel.”
Since Epstein was entitled under the GI Bill (a law providing a range of benefits for returning WWII veterans) after his discharge, he attended Yeshiva University and Brooklyn College – earning degrees from both, then a master’s in education. Initially, he taught Hebrew at a public high school in Brooklyn. As his career developed, he became an assistant principal and then principal, retiring after 32 years in the New York City school system.
“My wife and I made aliya alone, but over the past 28 years we have convinced our three children to make aliya as well. [Our children], their children, our grandchildren and now, four great-grandchildren, are all in Israel.”
During his years in Israel, Epstein has been an active member of the JWV in Jerusalem. “We are proud to have members from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the War in Afghanistan, and people like me who served not necessarily in a war zone. American Jews have been in military service since the Revolutionary War.
“I did not get to fight the Nazis directly, but I knew my fellow Americans believed that Hitler had to be defeated. The US truly saved the world.”
IMMEDIATELY AFTER the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Nadel enlisted in the US Army. His 21 initial assignment, he tells me, was in a cannon unit above a beach in the state of Maine.
“We tend to forget that in 1942 the waters off the US’s Atlantic shores were filled with Nazi submarines. Once the US Navy sighted these German U-boats, we were given the coordinates and ours was one of the units that had to destroy those subs. Frequently, Nazi personnel who had been killed by our shelling washed up on the shores of Maine."
“I was a Jew in a free country,” he emphasizes. “What Hitler was doing to the Jews was unbelievable. I knew that he had to be killed and the Nazis had to be defeated; that was my motivation for enlisting.”
Nadel became an officer in the Combat Engineer Corps. He landed on Normandy shortly after D-Day, fighting in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II and earning five battle stars.
Leading combat engineer troops in the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of France, he showed his tactical brilliance on many occasions.
Nadel was also one of those American- Jewish officers who assisted in the liberation of Jewish survivors from the concentration camps.
“You can’t imagine what it was like,” this exemplary officer recounts, his voice trembling. “The stench; people walking around just like skeletons, just bones and skin, that’s all. I was under the command of the famous Gen. George S. Patton. When he entered Buchenwald, he threw up, overwhelmed by the sight.”
Recently, the Associated Press ran a feature story about Nadel and the 550,000 American Jews who served in World War II. The piece grew out of an event in Israel on May 9, 2015, the 70th anniversary of V-E day. President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saluted the Jews from America and 14 other countries who fought in the Allied Forces, aiding dramatically in the defeat of Hitler, the Nazis and their compatriots.
At the gathering, attended by 2,000 Israelis – and ambassadors from all the countries where Jews fought – Rivlin said with deep emotion: “We stand here as representatives of a people who gave their best sons on the battleground. While their brothers and sisters were being led to destruction, the Jewish warriors stood on the front lines.”
He asked a question no one in Israel or in the world has yet answered fully.
“Do our children and grandchildren know that the Jewish people fought in the killing fields of Europe and Asia, and demonstrated great valor in the defeat of the tyrannical rulers?” The only official recognition of Jewish participation in World War II is at the museum of the Jewish War Veterans of America in Washington; of late, it has been updated with state-of-the-art installations. As is fitting, its focus is on American-Jewish military personnel in all the wars throughout the 239 years of American history.
Here in Israel, a museum honoring the 1.5 million Jewish fighters in World War II has been built in Latrun under the leadership of Gen. (res.) Zvi Kan-Tor, at a cost of $10 million in funds raised.
AS A lover of Jerusalem, a city where he and his wife Shirley have lived for almost four decades, Nadel wrote a song a few years ago to express his feelings. I listen as he sings the first verse for me. ■
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Every morning I pray for you/With bright sun most every day/I am happy to greet you/Plants on the Western Wall bloom and grow – Bloom and grow together/Jerusalem, Jerusalem – God bless Israel forever.”
This article is dedicated to the memory of the author’s father, Lt.-Col. Louis Geffen, who was a judge advocate in WWII and then prosecuted Japanese war criminals under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.