G.I. Jew: An American soldier’s story

In WWII, 550,000 American Jews served in the armed forces, 11 percent of the Jewish population in the US.

Jewish veterans of WWII are honored in May 2014 at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Jewish veterans of WWII are honored in May 2014 at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
As I complete the first draft of a biography of my father – specifically his first 30 years – I am grateful that he documented his life through letters, programs, booklets and photographs that are proving invaluable to my work. My dad died in 1999 at the age of 75 as a result of complications from insulin-dependent diabetes.
In my youth he would tell me the stories of his experiences as a soldier in the US Army in WWII. His letters from the battlefield in Germany and Bohemia to his parents and sisters in Astoria, Queens shed light on the fierce fighting in the last weeks of the war in Europe and on the destruction of European Jewry. Long before the term “Holocaust” entered the lexicon and conscience of the West, my father realized that European Jewry had met a horrible end. On April 28, 1945, he wrote the following: “Every town we’ve occupied we’ve asked if there are any Jews left in the town and the answer has always been ‘nein.’ It seems as if they have murdered every one or left them to die in concentration camps. We’ve got to avenge the deaths of these minorities and those of the hostages the Nazis took.”
One disturbing item in the trove of documents my father left me is a booklet by US Brigadier General Milton B. Halsey that was published soon after the war in Europe ended.
My father was sergeant of a heavy machine gun squad in the 97th Infantry Division, which Gen. Halsey commanded.
The division commander’s booklet provides a history of the “Trident division” and its battles in Europe. At one point in the chronicle, Halsey pauses to remember those men who died in combat. He writes: “Even as we rejoice in victory, however, there is sadness in our hearts, for the road through the Ruhr Pocket and into Czechoslovakia is marked by crosses bearing the names of our comrades who valiantly and unselfishly gave their lives that the cause of freedom might endure and flourish.”
In WWII, 550,000 American Jews served in the armed forces, 11 percent of the Jewish population in the US.
Many of those serving their country – both men and women – were children of immigrants. Eleven thousand American Jews died fighting for America, including Gabe, my father’s closest childhood friend. Yes, most Americans who died fighting an evil that threatened civilization were buried under graves marked by crosses.
Throughout American history, most soldiers were Christian – that should be recognized, although the Jewish contribution to America’s wars is significant and dates back to the American Revolution. It never occurred to the commander of the division in 1945 that Jews died in combat and were buried under the mark of a Star of David. Many young Jewish men never came home to be greeted by loving families and friends.
My dad – known by the name “Paul Cohen” during the war, a Jewish family name that his parents chose at Ellis Island for reasons I still cannot fathom – lived his life as a G.I. both as a Jew and an American. For most of the war, he was stationed at the Bartow Army Air Force base in Central Florida. His friendships in the military crossed ethnic and religious lines. But along with the “jitterbug” and the USO dances, my father’s ties to his Jewish faith were paramount.
He sang in the shul chorus at a synagogue in nearby Lakeland and he later conducted Seder services on Passover for Jewish G.I.’s on the boat that took them to combat in Europe.
There were times when anti-Semitism was a reality despite the friendships forged by the sons of immigrants from different places and different religions. When my father arrived in Germany in his first days of combat, a private from West Virginia in his squad asked the Jew from New York why he had no horns and a tail! The private said he had never met a Jew before in his life and could not believe my father was such a nice guy. Back home in a small town, he was told that Jews were “the sons of the Devil.” This wasn’t so much a real example of Jew hatred as it was of sheer ignorance. But one thing the war did was to bring together Americans who otherwise would never have met. Later, while serving in the occupation army in Japan, my father’s involvement in organizing USO shows was deemed the laziness of a Jew who did not want to do the hard work in which the rest of his company was engaged. It went both ways for Jews in the service.
While in Europe, Jewish soldiers could not escape the reality of the genocide of the Jews by the Germans and their collaborators. Other essays that I have penned for The Jerusalem Post deal with my father’s confrontation with this reality. Sergeant Cohen spoke in Yiddish with Jewish women from Hungary who survived a death march, he and another Jewish G.I., George Skolnik (from New Haven, Connecticut), discovered a synagogue in a German town that had been converted into a garbage dump, and both men – carrying their rifles – never hesitated to reveal their Jewish identity to German civilians they encountered. The battles in Europe and the Pacific were fought by Americans of all backgrounds, but for most American Jews fighting in the European Theater of Operations there was an additional sense of mission – and even the yearning for revenge.
Sergeant Cohen’s story was, on one level, the same as that of every American who fought the battles of the Second World War. But as a Jew, the meaning of that war – and the meaning of American Independence – was inherently Jewish. The war was one that brought most Americans together, but also one in which the Jewish G.I. could not help but be reminded that he was a Jew.