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America and the ‘GI Jews’

avatar by Harold Brackman


General Eisenhower in Warsaw after World War II. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Prior to the 1960s, many Americans shared the belief that military conscription benefited young men and uplifted certain groups. World War II cemented this optimistic view. But there was no such consensus in August 1941, when the House of Representatives voted for an extension of the peacetime draft by a single vote.

Nearly 80 years later, it’s worth exploring how military service during World War II changed the 550,000 Jewish men and women whom their biographer, Deborah Dash Moore, has called “GI Jews.”

World War II reinforced the pride of American Jews serving in uniform — especially second-generation Jews and those fighting in the European theatre. In Europe, Jewish soldiers had little room to submerge their Jewishness, because Hitler provided them with constant reminders of the Nazis’ unfolding Holocaust.

Akiva Skiddell was a “first generation” American Jew, born in Poland, who already considered himself a Labor Zionist before he enlisted, and was assigned as a radio operator with a recon unit. But encountering Danish Jews who escaped the Nazis in Europe transformed him into a militant yidishe kemfer (Jewish fighter), who believed in taking vengeance against Germany.

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Fred Friendly was a military reporter whom General Eisenhower had transferred from the Pacific to Europe. He saw “the machinery of death” in Mauthausen. The stench of stinking bodies overwhelmed him. Indelibly imprinted by the experience, he described it as “his bar mitzah, his emancipation, his baptism rolled into one.” The “blood and smell” of the prison camp made him a committed Jew for the rest of his life.

On the other hand, Jews serving in the Pacific on far-flung islands were more isolated. New Orleans-born Lieutenant Hyman Samuelson entered the Army nominally Jewish, and fearful of African-Americans. He found himself commanding a Black engineering company on New Guinea. His racial prejudices dissipated, but so did his tenuous ties to Judaism.

A unique case was David Macariv from Atlanta, stationed in Calcutta for two years. His Southern prejudices against “colored people” and smug sense of the superiority of American Jews were shattered by his experiences with Indian Jews. He wrote to his parents, “I came to India with faith in the Galuth [diaspora], and now I have seen enough to negate it entirely.” After the war, he settled in Palestine.

From slugger Hank Greenberg to Norman Mailer, and Mel Brooks to Henry Kissinger, Jewish soldiers left their imprint on post-war American life. But more important was the impact on non-celebrity “GI Jews.”

Moore concludes that the war experience made Jews “both more American and Jewish.” They returned home to a vastly changed country; they seized new opportunities. Buoyed by the new American “triple melting pot” of Catholic-Protestant-Jew, they demanded that Jewish “defensive organizations” practice more inclusive outreach to other races and religions. And many for the first time became staunchly Zionist.

World War II transformed the “GI Jews” — and they then changed America.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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