December 4, 2003
Saluting Jewish World War II Vets
When Jules Berlinsky took basic training in the South during World War II, his commanding officer said to him, "You don't look Jewish. You don't have horns."
"He was serious," said Berlinsky, 92, who was in the Army's Spearhead Division. "He was on the ignorant side. He didn't heckle us too much but he just let us know that we were different from him."
Berlinsky is one of the 31 war veterans who reside at the Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA), and will be honored on Dec. 7 at the JHA's Wells Fargo Walk of Ages IV fundraiser.
Dec. 7 is also Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, a date that -- in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's words -- "will live in infamy," when, in 1941, the Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbor, hurling the United States into the war.
Approximately 550,000 Jewish Americans served in the armed forces during World War II, about 4.23 percent of the total number of troops. Both Roosevelt and General Douglas MacArthur praised their bravery specifically. During the war, 52,000 Jewish soldiers received an award or decoration of some kind and 11,000 were killed.
Now, close to 60 years after World War II, veterans of the conflict have aged and their numbers are dwindling, but despite current ambivalence toward American war-like nature, America's participation in World War II and relative success in making the world "safe for democracy" is never questioned.
"Since it was the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we felt that doing this [honoring the veterans] would be fantastic," said Shelly Markman, the Walk's chair. "We opened it up not only to Jewish war veterans but to all war veterans. These people have given us freedom and the opportunity to make a living and raise a family and I think we should be thankful to them."
At the JHA, a group of eight veterans (seven men, one woman), gathered to talk to The Journal about their experiences of being Jewish and in the armed forces during World War II. Several use walkers or canes; their speech, though sharp, is slow. They take out photographs of themselves in uniform looking young and handsome, confident and strong. One rolls up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo that a native etched on his skin with a palm frond and soot on a Pacific island during the war.
"Do you remember your serial number?" they ask each other. "Do you remember your rifle number? Do you remember that cigarettes cost us $2 a carton but we would sell them for $15?"
With time's erosion of memory, their war experiences become reductive; a list of places stationed, and certain important events. But their recollection of being Jewish in the service -- and the prejudice, ignorance, and the sense of being different that accompanied that -- remains strong.
"I was in a battalion of 1,200 men," said Ellis Simon, 80, who was in the Marines. "And there were two Jews, but we weren't that friendly with each other. The other guy -- his name was Hochberg, and he was a wuss. He got picked on mainly because he was a Jew. I wore a Jewish star, but I never had any trouble because I was a tough kid and I wouldn't stand for that. One of the soldiers called me 'Dirty Jew' and I fought him."
Berlinsky remembers a time when there was "a rumpus" in the chow hall.
"I got up to see what was wrong and this young Jewish guy from Brooklyn called Marty Cohen said 'they're trying to kill me. They are putting bacon in with the eggs there!,'" Berlinsky said. "I said 'Marty, they're not trying to kill you.' This same fellow Marty had two twin sisters who would visit the camp and bring us salami and herring. It smelled so beautiful to us, but for those who were non-Jewish, it was a terrible smell. They couldn't stand it."
For Josie Joffe, the Army bought out strengths she never knew she had. "I became a sergeant major through no fault of my own," she said. "I was a very quiet person and they had to teach me to shout commands. We used to take part in parades to welcome the troops and we would tend to wounded British pilots at a rest homes. We were a whole Jewish group and one day we heard one of the soldiers remark about the 'bloody Jews' so we never went back after that."
Now of course, World War II and the struggle to liberate Europe and defeat Japan seem light years away and condensed into roundtable anecdotes, but for these men and women the armed forces experience doesn't disappear.
Said Simon, "Once a marine always a marine."
The Walk will take place on Dec. 7 at the JHA's Eisenberg Village Campus at 18855 Victory Blvd., Reseda. Registration begins at 7 a.m.; walk begins at 8:30 a.m. Comedian Don Rickles will serve as honorary chair of the Walk. For more information, call (818) 774-3100 or visit www.walkofages.kintera.org .