N.Y. Holocaust museum exhibit honors Jewish WWII vets

new york | Joseph Zinn, now 83, remembers being made an American citizen so he could fight the Nazis.

“There was a law that you couldn’t send noncitizens,” he recalls in a voice that still bears traces of his native Austria. “So in 1943, during basic training, the Army brought us to a big courtroom and made us citizens.

“On our dog tags, there were just three official religions: P for Protestant, C for Catholic, and H for Hebrew. Some of the guys were afraid to have H on their dog tags in case we were captured.”

Zinn pauses, gesturing to the spot on his chest where his dog tags once lay: “Mine had H.”

Zinn, along with several dozen other Jewish World War II veterans and their families, braved a freezing rain to attend a recent event in their honor at New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

Some stooped, others spry, and most nearly all gray, they came to hear their contributions lauded by luminaries from among their own ranks.

Speakers included Henry Kissinger, the U.S. secretary of state during the Nixon and Ford administrations and a former U.S. Army captain and intelligence officer, and Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney and a lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II.

Also in attendance was former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who served as a sergeant in the Army during the war.

The event coincided with an exhibit at the museum called “Ours to Fight for: American Jews in the Second World War.” The exhibit features Jewish World War II veterans’ eyewitness testimony threaded throughout displays that include battle footage, combat weapons and artifacts of life in America before and during the war. It continues through December.

Morgenthau, who is chairman of the museum, conceived of the event as a tribute to his fellow soldiers. He was inspired by a rally that took place at New York’s Congregation Emanu-El on Dec. 26, 1943, to honor Jewish troops.

“Like Holocaust survivors, for many years veterans didn’t want to talk about their experiences,” Morgenthau said. “We thought it was important to memorialize the contributions made by Jewish veterans in World War II.”

In their remarks, the speakers bonded with fellow Jewish veterans in recollecting the past, and sought to apply their experiences to the present.

Kissinger joked about having prepared for jungle warfare, and then winding up in Europe during one of the coldest winters in its history.

He recalled his division encountering a concentration camp on the outskirts of Hanover, Germany, and spoke of the horrors he saw there. He discovered 20 years later that his grandmother had passed through that camp, dying two days before the war ended.

World War II, he reflected, was a war “without moral ambiguity.”

“Yes, we were scared, yes we were uncomfortable, but there was never any question about what we were doing; it was an honor to participate,” he said.

Kissinger, who was born in Germany, credited his World War II service with having helped him become an American. He drew analogies between the threat posed to today’s free societies by Islamic extremists and the threat Nazism posed to the Jews of Europe.

“My father, in 1938, had reservations about whether to leave” Europe, he said. “I told him, ‘[The Nazis] will come for us.’ And that is what’s going to happen to the rest of the world if the U.S. doesn’t stand firm.”

Morgenthau recalled enlisting in the summer of 1940 and spending his 21st birthday on a destroyer in Boston Navy Yard. He survived the sinking of one ship by the Nazis in the Mediterranean Sea and a kamikaze attack on another destroyer.

He noted that there were 1,900 kamikaze suicide attacks on the U.S. naval fleet at Okinawa, and greater casualties there than at Pearl Harbor. “I mention this because imperial Japan, that produced such fanatics, could be turned into a democracy,” he said. “So maybe the fanaticism in the Middle East can give way to democracy.”

After the speakers’ presentations, veterans milled about, viewed the exhibit and socialized. According to the exhibit, 550,000 Jews served in World War II in the U.S. military. Of those, 11,000 were killed, 40,000 were wounded and 52,000 were decorated for gallantry. Jews made up some 3.5 percent of the U.S. military during the war.

Leslie Fischer, 87, pointed to herself in a photograph of women soldiers. A former Navy specialist who directed recreational activities for servicemen in hospitals, she remembers volunteering at age 23. “I was idealistic and felt, ‘I have to go,'” she recalled.

Of the exhibit, she said, “It’s about helping people realize Jews have made great contributions to the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Zinn appreciated the opportunity to spend time with his fellow service members.

“To meet up with fellow veterans, to see they’re doing well, alive and kicking — it means a lot,” he said.

Kissinger concluded his remarks with a tribute to those not present.

“I think of our fellow soldiers who didn’t make it, and those who died without being able to fight, in the gas chambers,” he said. “We’ve had long life and will always be proud of fighting for America and for our people, of fighting for a world in which the weak can be secure and the just can be free.”