November 9, 2000
Courage Under Fire
Jewish veterans reflect on intolerance at the front line.
Mort Wolk hadn't slept a wink in two days. The invasion had been called off the day before due to bad weather, but Wolk had been on edge and too busy to rest. It was 4 a.m., and his plane was over Nazi-held Normandy. The only Jew and the only enlisted man on board, Wolk was part of Task Force A, a group of 40 paratroopers that had four hours to establish and secure a command post for the D-Day invasion.
"I thought to myself, 'Well, God, this is it. I'm not asking any favors. I've lived an honest life. Whatever I have coming, I have coming,'" says Wolk, who was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.
Wolk landed in the water just off the bank of the Douve River. Wet and cold, he made his way along the hedgerows. Armed with a rifle and a clicker that made a cricket sound, Wolk shot at anyone who didn't respond to his cricket call in kind.
After the command post was established, Wolk found a vantage point and watched the invasion.During World War II, Jewish participation in the military was greater than that of the general population. Yet Jewish veterans, who, like Wolk, served courageously, continue to fight an uphill battle against the unfounded anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews haven't served their country.
In reality, Jewish involvement in the American military dates back to 1654, when Asser Levy, one of the original 23 Jewish settlers, demanded the right to stand guard at the stockade in New Amsterdam. Jews have served in every American war, from the American Revolution to the Persian Gulf War, and thousands have received combat medals.
At the dawn of the 21st century, thankfully, conditions for Jews in the military have improved. With a zero-tolerance stance for religious or racial discrimination, Jewish military personnel can finally focus on the task of being all that they can be without fear of being targets of hate.
"There's a lot of rules and regulations," says Paul Kahn, commander of Jewish War Veterans Post 603. "Anti-Semitism is not as bad as it was in World War II and the Korean War."
Still, the memories of anti-Semitism during wartime run deep, especially for those who served on the front.Wolk says that his commander, a West Point man called away from a successful law practice, was anti-Semitic and specifically picked him for the Normandy invasion.
"I said, 'Look, lieutenant, no stripes. Get a guy with stripes,'" says Wolk, who was still a private first class despite participation in three previous invasions: North Africa, Sicily and Italy. "He said, 'You're the best man for the job. Plus, if we get back we'll both get stripes.' Sure: he became a captain, and I became a corporal."
During the Korean War, Martin Zelcer, now 73, also had an anti-Semitic experience while serving on the front.
A Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor who had lost his parents and three brothers, Zelcer had been in the United States barely a year when he was drafted.
"I was disappointed that they didn't give me a chance to get to know the country," he says.
Zelcer had the right to refuse induction, but his citizenship would have been jeopardized. Attached to the Army's 24th Division, 5th Regimental Combat Team, Zelcer says that going to war on the heels of surviving the Holocaust "was not pleasant. It was out of the frying pan and into the fire."
"I was used to hardships and suffering," he says. "So I rolled with the punches. The American kids had a harder time than I had. They were spoon-fed, and I had gone through so much."
While serving on the front, a Hawaiian staff sergeant took a strong dislike to Zelcer. "If he could have drowned me in a teaspoon of water, he would have," says Zelcer. "He knew I was Jewish."
Zelcer mentioned the situation to the company commander, who had taken an interest in his survivor past, and from then on the sergeant steered clear of him.
Vidal Cohen, 31, says that racial and religious discrimination aren't tolerated in today's Marine Corps. "We had one racial incident in my unit, and there was some pretty stiff punishment for the people involved."
Cohen, an L.A. native who joined the Marine Corps out of high school, was one of many in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines who didn't think they were actually being shipped off to fight in the Persian Gulf War.
"Nobody really believed it until we got on the airplane," says Cohen. "When they popped the hatch and there was Saudi Arabia, it was like, 'Uh-oh.'"
Cohen, whose unit was responsible for retaking Kuwait City and occupying the Kuwait International Airport, thought his being Jewish in an Arab country might be a problem. The military did too. But the locals turned out to be more offended by servicewomen in T-shirts than by Members of the Tribe.
Cohen, who now works in the entertainment industry, says he became more observant as a result of participating in the Persian Gulf War. "Going to war makes you reflect," he says.
While veterans are pleased that anti-Semitism in the military is increasingly becoming a nonissue, they would like to see a return to a time when veterans were honored for their sacrifices, especially within the Jewish community.
Kahn says that outside of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel's annual dinner, he knows of no other synagogues that go out of their way on Veterans Day to honor those who served.
"Ever since the Vietnam War, veterans are no longer deemed as important to America's past," says Kahn. "It would be nice if the various synagogues would be more appreciative of the Jewish war veterans."