“How World War II Changed a Generation” by Deborah Dash Moore (Harvard University Press, 2004).
Walking near my parents’ home in Florida — where I’m writing this column — I noticed a hat with World War II insignias, much like the one my father sometimes wears, in the back window of a parked car. I’d just finished reading “GI JEWS: How World War II Changed a Generation” by Deborah Dash Moore, so the image of the hat really struck me, and I imagined that most men on this street must own similar versions.
My father immediately knew whose hat it was, called him and soon the three of us sat down to talk about their experiences as Jews during World War II; it was as though they had stepped out of the pages of Moore’s book. Both my father and his friend, Lewis Sugerman, are tall 83-year-olds who look like they could almost fit into their uniforms: My father grew up on the Lower East Side and served in the Navy, in the Pacific; Sugerman is from Brooklyn and served in the Infantry, stationed in Europe.
“You could never forget that you were a Jew in the service,” Sugerman said. “They would never let you.”
Both men tell of incidents they experienced of anti-Semitism, “an undercurrent,” in my father’s words, but they also speak of Jews who fought back, and others who stood up for the Jewish soldiers. They tell stories of 60 years ago with great ease, speaking with pride of serving their country, and as proud Jews.
It turns out that Sugerman never wears the hat. He leaves it in his car so that he can easily find it among many cars that look alike. When my father wears his, strangers occasionally thank him for his service. These guys are, without a doubt, members of the greatest generation.
Moore, a historian of American Jewry who teaches at Vassar, said she sometimes inscribes copies of her books to veterans who attend her talks, “Thanks for the chance to learn about the Jewish greatest generation.”
“GI Jews” is a compelling view of World War II through the perspective of Jewish servicemen, many of whom had to fight stereotypes of Jews among their comrades, along with fighting the enemy; a large number of them experienced blatant anti-Semitism. More than half a million Jews — many the sons and daughters of immigrants — served in the various branches of the armed services. The war that changed the world dramatically changed their subsequent lives at home.
Moore has written an outstanding book, a work of scholarship that reads like fine journalism. As the author explains, she has created narrative history — telling the stories of 15 American Jewish men — where the analysis is below the surface, rather than in the forefront as in most academic books. Each chapter begins with a powerful epigraph, whether some lines of poetry by Stanley Kunitz or Anthony Hecht, or a basketball cheer that ends, “So we’re eating ham for Uncle Sam.” The captioned photographs add a powerful visual element to the story.
The author of several previous books, including “At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews” (Columbia University, 1981) and “To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A.” (Free Press, 1994), Moore was inspired to begin the project in 1995, when she noticed that there was nothing about Jews in most of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war.
“The only discussions,” she noted, “had to do with the Holocaust, with Jews as victims.” Having grown up as the daughter of a veteran, she knew there was much more to the story. She came up with the idea of asking her father, who was an officer in the Naval Reserves, and his childhood buddies — they had formed a club in 1930s Brooklyn known as the Dragons — if she could interview them about their wartime experiences, and all agreed. Members of the Dragons served in different branches of the service, and had varying experiences. The Dragons are now scattered through New York and Florida, and several came together recently, along with Moore’s father, to celebrate the book’s publication.
“I learned things I’d never learned before,” she said. “We had only heard short, funny, light stories from my father. It sounded like he was on a cruise ship rather than a destroyer.”
She added: “It’s as though I opened some secret door that had been locked and carefully guarded for 60 years.”
Her editor at Harvard University Press suggested that she go beyond these boys from Brooklyn and include men who came from different Jewish backgrounds. She had no trouble finding subjects, as she met “men of a certain age” everywhere she went.
“Everyone, it seemed, had been in the war and was ready to talk when they heard this was a serious book,” she said. “A lot of them hadn’t spoken before.”
She writes: “The history of World War II as experienced by American Jews in the armed forces is one of difference amid similarity, of exclusion amid integration, of transfiguration amid routine, of triumph amid catastrophe. It is also a story of courage despite fear. American Jews struggled to maintain the cohesion of their American and Jewish selves throughout their service, from the first decisions about whether to enlist or wait to be drafted, to the initial encounter with military norms at induction centers, through basic training, and on to the tour of duty.”
Some men speak of going into the service thinking of themselves as Americans, and then being reminded, repeatedly, by their fellow GIs that they were Jews.
“No etiquette book guided Jews in responding to anti-Semitism,” she writes, noting that each individual had to make quick decisions about how to react, whether it was verbal taunts, physical threat or discrimination in job assignments and promotion.
The men speak of eating nonkosher food for the first time, and several have difficulties with pork. Even an nonobservant Jew can’t get over his aversion and realizes “how firmly his Jewish identity was lodged in the mundane realm of food.” For many men, prayer became “an opportunity to express their deepest concerns,” as Moore explains, and sometimes it became a political statement, like when a German tank was used as a bimah for a makeshift Yom Kippur service. They also describe meeting other Jews, whether in small towns in the South where they were training, or in India and Germany. For those who liberated the concentration camps, the experience would endure a lifetime, “muting the joy and relief brought by victory.”
One thing that particularly surprised her about the men’s responses was the “way in which moral questions about the war remained, to a certain extent, unresolved.” She explains that they continue to reflect upon whether they did the right things, with regard to a range of issues, from the treatment of German prisoners, to their reactions to the anti-Semitism of their buddies.
Moore, 58, who has been teaching at Vassar for 28 years, lives in Washington Heights. Married and the mother of two grown sons, she is a third-generation Reconstructionist Jew, active in the West End Synagogue on the West Side of Manhattan.
The author is beginning a new book, looking at the meaning of the Rosenberg case for American Jews.
“Although there has been an enormous amount written on the case, there has been very little written about the Jewish dimensions of it,” she said.
Her hope is that “GI Jews” will “help us reimagine the Holocaust, within the context of World War II, with well over 1 million Jews fighting in the [various] armies, against Germany,” she said. “Jews weren’t just civilian victims of Hitler. But they were also in the military, fighting as best as they could. I think it’s important, at the 60th anniversary of the last months of the war.”
When asked if writing this book changed her perspective, she recalls that on Sept. 11, she was on a fellowship at Yale, working in her office, when she heard of the collapse of the Twin Towers.
“I felt like it was Pearl Harbor again,” she said. “It was so shocking, so unexpected.”
She even heard the news the way an earlier generation did — by radio. Working on the book, the historian said, “made me much more empathetic. We just don’t know that the future is.”
Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.