Victory girl escaped Nazism to lead a life of service

The story of World War II “victory girls” is an oft-overlooked chapter in American history. The women assisted at various military bases throughout the country, serving doughnuts and coffee and boosting the morale of the soldiers departing for overseas combat.

San Francisco resident Martin Jacobs, author of the recent “V for Victory Collectibles,” found a local angle for his book and a woman to whom he dedicated it. Jean Milgram, also a resident of San Francisco, was a victory girl with an unusual story of her own. The 81-year-old Romanian-born Milgram barely escaped from Nazi persecution, and her mother perished at Auschwitz. Settling in the United States, she went to work at Camp Blanding in Florida. Her experience at the Army base, where she worked at the commissary during the day and volunteered as a victory girl at night, became the template for the rest of her life, a life centered around volunteerism and a profound appreciation for freedom.

Today Milgram volunteers at a number of organizations, including Hadassah, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (where she was the volunteer of the year in 1999) and the San Francisco Food Bank, as well as the city’s opera and ballet organizations. Much of her volunteer efforts aid the two countries she feels the most affinity for — Israel and the United States.

“All the people that complain about living in America didn’t have to go through what I went through in Romania,” said Milgram, who was 17 when she came to the States. “If you were Jewish and lived in Romania during World War II, you wouldn’t have a chance to complain. From the moment I got here, I never once complained about living in America.”

This month, Jacobs and Milgram have been conducting book signings of “V for Victory” on board the USS Missouri, the USS Bowfin and the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. In May, she will be visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The decision to visit the museum, however, was not an easy one.

“I have lived all these years with the guilt that I made it out of Europe, and my mother died at Auschwitz,” said Milgram during a recent interview. “I’ve just never had the guts to face the Holocaust memorial before, but I decided to confront my fears this time.

“I want to see if my mother’s name is listed there…it’s a bitter pill to swallow, but I really have to do it.”

Milgram won’t be alone in facing her fears. Her friend Jacobs, 59, will also be along for the trip. Jacobs, who met Milgram through his own mother (also a longtime Hadassah member), called Milgram’s story one of “remarkable courage.”

“She came to this country all by herself at the age of 17, with no parents or siblings,” said Jacobs. Milgram’s father died when she was young, so “she had to become an adult in a hurry.”

These days Milgram, who retired almost two decades ago from a career at I. Magnin, now spends most of her time volunteering. Her husband of nearly 50 years, Leopold, died in 1985.

Jacobs, who owned a sports memorabilia store for many years, has written four books on World War II. His 92-year-old father served in Europe during the war, which prompted Jacobs’ interest in memorabilia from that era.

Among other items he possesses are original Western Union telegrams informing parents of their sons’ deaths on the battlefield; red, white and blue “Victory ukuleles”; war bonds; and pins that read “kick them in their Axis.”

“I think the timing is good for this book, and for stories like Jean’s,” said Jacobs, who served as a stateside cook during the Vietnam War. “Everyone’s in a patriotic mood, and is aware of how our freedoms are at stake.”

“V for Victory Collectibles” by Martin Jacobs (96 pages, Pictorial History Publishing, $14.95)