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A Star of David for Pvt. Benjamin Garadetsky
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A Star of David for Pvt. Benjamin Garadetsky

He and others like him lived and died as Jewish soldiers. A project is focusing on remembering them as Jews, too.

From Latin Cross to Jewish star: An Operation Benjamin ceremony Feb. 12 at the Manilla American Cemetery.
Photos courtesy of American Battle Monuments Commission
From Latin Cross to Jewish star: An Operation Benjamin ceremony Feb. 12 at the Manilla American Cemetery. Photos courtesy of American Battle Monuments Commission

On the evening of June 6, 1944, about 12 hours after the Allied invasion of Normandy got underway, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered a radio address to the American people.

“My Fellow Americans,” he began. “In this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer: Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.”

Those who fight, he continued, do so “to let justice arise, and for the tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home. Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.”

On Wednesday, Feb. 12, I officiated at a ceremony at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines to remember five American Jewish soldiers who never returned to the “haven of home,” to the embrace of their bereaved families. Moreover, I was part of a team that welcomed them back into the religion of their families and into the bosom of their ancestral faith.

My interest began in May 2014 when I was visiting the Normandy American Cemetery with a group of friends. I was deeply moved to walk among the close to 10,000 graves of soldiers killed on and around D-Day, June 6, 1944. Their grave markers are carefully arranged in perfectly symmetrical rows; in whatever direction one looks one sees markers in a straight line. All that breaks the symmetry is the occasional Jewish star in a huge sea of crosses.

According to government data, the families of about 14,000 of the American soldiers killed in the European theater between D-Day and the end of the war asked that their remains be returned to their loved ones stateside. But in many cases, families opted to have the remains of soldiers buried abroad; as a result, 9,387 Americans are buried at the Normandy American Cemetery.

Wandering around in a solemn mood, I began to feel that there should be more Jewish stars represented. Even given the statistics — Jews represented 2.7 percent of all U.S. soldiers who were killed in action during WWII — I thought that more soldiers should be identified as Jews.

Sometime after I returned, I shared my observation with my friend, Shalom Lamm, a businessman who has a great interest and expertise in things military. Shalom began to research the number of Jewish stars in Normandy and found that, indeed, my hunch was correct: Many crosses marked the graves of Jewish soldiers. At that point Lamm fully devoted himself to identifying as many Jewish soldiers as possible who were buried under crosses in the Normandy cemetery.

The ceremony, the author writes, make us understand how much Jews have given to make America what it is today.

Yakov Ellenbogen, a student of mine at Yeshiva College, combed through lists of soldiers buried there, looking for Jewish-sounding names. Shalom also turned to his mechutan, Steve Lamar, a prominent lobbyist in Washington as well as an amateur genealogist, to help ensure that some were, in fact, Jewish.

Their careful work began to yield results. Shalom founded an organization called “The Normandy Heritage Project,” dedicated to tracking down “lost” Jewish soldiers and properly recognizing them in death as they chose to be recognized in life — as strong, proud Jews who died protecting their friends, their families and their country. Our hope was to be able to change the Latin cross markers over their graves to that of a Jewish Star of David. We began to raise funds to support our efforts, and we hired a superb genealogist, Rachel Silverman, to help us on a more sustained basis.

We discovered that in the chaos of battle, mistakes were often made, especially when soldiers were reburied after having first been hastily interred where they were killed. In addition, according to a 2013 article in the journal Hakirah by Rabbi Akiva Males, then of Harrisburg, Pa., Jewish soldiers often defaced their dog tags, which indicated their religion with the capital letter “H,” for Hebrew, because they were afraid of what might await them as Jews if they fell into enemy hands. (The dog tags also featured a “P” for Protestant and “C” for Catholic.) Soldiers who lived and died as Jews ended up being buried under Latin crosses.

Steve developed a close relationship with the leadership team of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), the government agency in charge of some 26 American military cemeteries throughout Europe and the Far East; 125,000 American soldiers are buried in those cemeteries. We faced two challenges: to definitively prove that the soldier was Jewish, and then to find a living family member to make the request to have the marker changed.

Finding Pvt. Garadetsky

As a result of our detailed review of the database of soldiers interred at Normandy, we found Benjamin Garadetsky, who was killed in battle on Aug. 23, 1944. Garadetsky, an Army private, was interred in the Normandy cemetery, like his mostly Christian comrades, under a cross. But Benjamin was a Jew; he voluntarily signed up for service in 1941, at age 26, so he could fight the Nazis — and he enlisted through the services of the National Jewish Welfare Board. Through painstaking genealogical research, we verified his Jewish identity and, through dogged efforts and, frankly, a bit of luck, we found his family. On June 20, 2018, in a moving ceremony, in full partnership with the ABMC, and in the presence of ABMC officials, family members and friends, we replaced the Latin cross under which Garadetsky was buried with a Jewish Star of David.

Our meticulous research next brought us to two brothers, Charles and Frank Solomon, airmen who were killed within a few months of one another, at the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944. Charles was buried in Normandy and Frank was buried in the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium, where the Battle of the Bulge was fought. On April 8 and 9, 2019, we changed both of their markers to Jewish stars, once again with the cooperation of ABMC and in the presence of family members and friends. Having expanded our efforts to a cemetery other than Normandy, we changed our name from the Normandy Heritage Project to “Operation Benjamin” (operationbenjamin.org), after our first “returning” soldier, Benjamin Garadetsky.

On Feb. 12, we replaced with Stars of David the Latin cross headstones marking the graves of five Jewish U.S. soldiers buried in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial — Robert S. Fink, Jack Gilbert, Allan C. Franken, Louis Wolf and Arthur Waldman. In the presence of Sung Kim, United States ambassador to the Philippines, Rafael Harpaz, Israel ambassador to the Philippines, and members of the soldiers’ families, we publicly affirmed our profound gratitude to them for their heroic contribution to the defense of America. We recited the Kaddish at each of their graves.

With all eight of these soldiers, and with three more whose headstone changes at European cemeteries have already been approved by the ABMC, Operation Benjamin has demonstrated a high level of adherence to detailed research, thorough documentation and full partnership with the families of the fallen soldiers. We are proud of our work in helping these “descendants of honor” pay renewed tribute to their long-departed family members, with the comfort that the contributions of their loved ones are now recognized with symbols reflecting their true faith.

As Americans, we salute the ABMC for its great work. We are deeply grateful to its leadership for the way the organization treats the remains of our American heroes with such dignity, respect, nobility, grandeur and majesty. Shalom, Steve and I met in Washington, D.C. at the end of November with William M. Matz, secretary of ABMC, in charge of all its operations worldwide. Secretary Matz told us then that “a country’s moral value is judged by how it cares for those who made the ultimate sacrifice on its behalf.” The ABMC represents our highest moral values as a country. It has been a real privilege for us at Operation Benjamin to partner with them.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Jews— in peace and in war —have contributed to every aspect of American life. Less well known are the Jewish contributions in blood — the hundreds of thousands of Jews who have been on the front lines every time the United States has gone to war. From the earliest days of the Republic, through the Civil War, the World Wars and today’s battles against Mideast terror, Jews have been an integral part of the U.S. military.

Perhaps the apex of Jewish participation in the military was World War II, as America gathered its strength to fight one of history’s greatest monsters — Hitler, the man who declared war particularly on the Jewish people, vowing to erase them from the pages of history. According to historian Solomon Grayzel, there were 550,000 Jews in the U.S. military during the war years, out of a total population of 4,770,000 American Jews. Of those, more than 10,000 were killed in combat, and more than 36,000 received citations.

These Jews died so we could remain alive — and free. Remembering them for who they were is the least we can do. Being involved in this chesed shel emet, a “true kindness,” is a matter of hakarat hatov — recognizing the good they did for us, and being appreciative of their sacrifices. And it’s important that we — and our children and grandchildren — understand just how much Jews have given to make America what it is today.

In addition, we live at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in America. By adding Jewish stars to the graves in these cemeteries we make it possible for all those visiting them — in person or virtually — to recognize that more Jews made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, for democracy, for America. Our work at Operation Benjamin will ensure that our soldiers are honored in death as lived their lives — as proud Jews.

I will always remember the thought that Scott Desjardins, superintendent at the Normandy American Cemetery, shared with us at the two ceremonies we were privileged to hold there. He said, “These people were not motivated to go to war by the people in front of them who they hated; they were motivated to go to war by the people behind them who they loved.”

May their souls be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter is the co-founder of Operation Benjamin and the University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University.

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