November 11, 2004
Rolls of Veterans Groups Dwindling
Seymour Goldman spent World War II with an Army cleanup crew handling mustard gas drums in India.
"It was a terrible job," said the 83-year-old, a retired TV repairman who lives in Culver City. "When I got out, I just didn't want anything more to do with it."
For Goldman and millions of other veterans -- Jews and non-Jews alike -- service in World War II was not a grand struggle, but exhaustive work.
Of the estimated 12 million to 13 million American men and women in uniform during World War II, only 1 million to 2 million of them saw actual combat. While Thursday's Veterans Day services brought out many veterans who have vivid memories of fighting the Nazis, scores of veterans served in support positions, which left them with little interest in remembrance or nostalgia.
"I had no illusions about action. We were quartered in mansions," said the Brooklyn-bred Goldman, whose unit was composed of himself, another Jewish soldier and 26 non-Jews, all from Texas.
The paucity of Jews serving on front lines may explain the dwindling numbers of members belonging to Jewish war veteran organizations.
Other reasons for the fewer members in the organization include the graying of the membership, and the fewer younger Jews serving in the military -- and therefore joining -- local Jewish veterans groups.
The San Fernando Valley's Jewish War Veterans Post 603 has 325 members, but that is a decline over the past decade. The post is part of California's 20,000 members who make up the Jewish War Veterans 110,000-member national roster, once dominated by World War II veterans.
Navy veteran Si Prussin, 81, spent most of the war in San Diego, waiting to be shipped out as a motor machinist on a landing craft.
"I wouldn't have avoided going into the service; there was a feeling that it was an important and useful thing to do," said Prussin, who later used the G.I. Bill to go to college
Prussin, raised in the Bronx, received an advanced degree from Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University. He has had a long career in metallurgy and semiconductor engineering and still teaches electrical engineering at UCLA.
He briefly joined a veterans group for a short time, but then dropped out. "It was not my atmosphere," he told The Journal.
Prussin and other Jewish veterans who did not see combat said they didn't need to belong to veterans groups, with Prussin noting that no combat means no nightmares.
Yiddish translator Hershel Hartman, 75, also didn't serve on the front lines in the Korean War -- but not by choice. The Army kept him at New Jersey's Ft. Dix for 15 months, because he was considered a security risk due to his memberships in left-wing, communist-allied groups.
"I refused to sign the loyalty oath," said Hartman, who was trained at an Army radio school but never was sent to Korea while he and his family were being investigated.
What Hartman remembers most of his service is not combat but tragedy. With Ft. Dix being close enough to New York, Hartman traveled to Manhattan for a rally on the day in 1954 that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as Soviet spies. "I remember that day very well."
There are other Jewish veterans who saw terrible events, and do participate in Veterans groups. But Jewish veterans from World War II and Korea are aging and their memories are slipping, which is why it's important to the groups to attract younger members.
At 32, U.S. Army Capt. David Sellen is the youngest member of Jewish War Veterans Post 603. The Valley Glen resident was an infantry officer in Afghanistan and now serves as a civil defense operations officer at Missouri's Ft. Leonard Wood.
"I think the next guy is in his early 60s or late 50s," said Sellen, whose mother is a nursery school teacher at Encino's Valley Beth Shalom. "There are more Jewish soldiers at least known today, and so I think more of it has to do with getting the word out. I didn't know it existed."
Why don't younger Jewish war veterans join organizations?
"They don't have the time to get into organizations," he said. "They save most of the [free] time for their families."