Jews recall battles on the front and in the ranks

“Karl, you’re the first brave Jew I’ve ever met!” a comrade-in-arms from the American South informed Karl Heiman at the height of battle in World War II. When Heiman asked how many Jews he’d previously met, the answer was, “None.”

So begins the first of 78 stories of Jewish American military heroes in Howard J. Leavitt’s book,”Footsteps of David: Common Roots, Uncommon Valor.” Based on interviews, books and articles, the stories draw the reader into such crucial events as Pearl Harbor, Battle of the Bulge, D-Day and Guadalcanal, as well as campaigns in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East.

More importantly, they present evidence that American Jews have fought bravely in every war — often while engaged on a second front against the anti-Semitism of their comrades.

Most of these servicemen received multiple decorations for their courage under fire. However, the author documents numerous cases of authentic heroes denied recognition because they were Jewish. One example is that of Pfc. Leonard Kravitz, killed in action in Korea, whose friend Mitchel Libman is spearheading an e-mail campaign to have him awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor.

The author finds the taint of anti-Semitism (as well as racism) in every branch of the armed forces, and recounts the ways his respondents have coped. For Jewish servicemen in World War II, most terrifying was the possibility of capture by the Germans. With that in mind, many of them discarded their dog tags bearing the telltale “H.”

Worst of all were the descriptions of Nazi concentration camps. Eugene Levine visited Buchenwald four days after its liberation and recounts: “The stench was overwhelming, and the sight of the sick, emaciated, stunned and bedraggled inmates was soul-wrenching.”

Gen. George S. Patton, whose comments on those survivors displayed ignorance, is also charged by Maj. Abe Baum with depriving him of a promised Congressional Medal of Honor in order to hide a possible war crime of his own.

American Jewish servicemen, motivated by what they knew of Nazism, were among the best fighters in World War II, according to the book. By contrast, some Jewish veterans of the Vietnam War express doubts about its purpose. Capt. Alan Bagully, a victim of Agent Orange, believes “the whole crappy, corrupt country was not worth one American life.” Yet he earned several medals for his service there.

The book contains a few verses — patriotic, humorous and lyrical — all of which have merit. And although it is extremely long, its stories — if read just a few at a time — are of compelling interest.

“Footsteps of David: Common Roots, Uncommon Valor” by Howard J. Leavitt (608 pages, 1stBooks Library, $27.95).