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Searching for Sgt. Kauffman

Sitting on a recent day in the light filtering through a large multi-paned, stained-glass window of the Memorial Library — a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library located on Olympic Boulevard across from L.A. High School — I noticed a list of 20 names ornately worked into the glass.
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May 25, 2016

Sitting on a recent day in the light filtering through a large multi-paned, stained-glass window of the Memorial Library — a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library located on Olympic Boulevard across from L.A. High School — I noticed a list of 20 names ornately worked into the glass. Satisfying my curiosity, an inscription informed that the window was “Dedicated to the alumni of the Los Angeles High School who died in the World War.” Reading the list, my eyes rested on one name: Joseph L. Kauffman. “Was he Jewish?” I wondered. Where did he die? What kind of life was ended by his sacrifice? Did someone say Kaddish for him? Little did I know, sitting in the library that afternoon, that looking for answers about the man in the window would take me on a ride across Los Angeles County.

First stop was the library’s circulation desk, where from a one-page “Brief History,” I discovered that the students of L.A. High had commissioned the stained glass for the library when it formally opened on April 29, 1930. As for my questions about the individuals memorialized in the window, the response was, “Please let us know if you find something.”

Researching at home, I found an article in a World War I-era edition of the B’nai B’rith Messenger that clearly identified Joseph Leon Kauffman as Jewish. The son of Isaac, who owned a general merchandise store in El Monte, and Ernestine Kauffman (née Laventhal), Joseph was born in Los Angeles in 1895 and was confirmed by Rabbi Sigmund Hecht of Congregation B’nai B’rith. He had an older brother, Milton. 

Joseph Kauffman. Photo courtesy Western States Jewish history

Curiously, a quick internet search also brought up a photo of a monument dedicated to Sgt. Joseph L. Kauffman, located in the San Gabriel Valley town of Temple City, a long way from the family home on Catalina Street in the heart of what today is Koreatown.

In search of answers, I got on the I-10 heading east.

In 1921, the American Jewish Committee issued a report that found that “about 250,000 Jewish soldiers served in the United States military during World War I, 40,000 of whom volunteered,” and that “about 3,500 Jews were killed in action or died of wounds.” Kauffman wanted to be a volunteer. “As soon as war was declared, he applied for entrance to the officers’ training school, but through a clerical error and confusion of names, this was denied him,” reported an article in the Dec. 1, 1918 edition of the Los Angeles Times, published after his death. “When he was drafted he joyfully accepted the call, even hastening his departure by exchanging places with a married man,” the article said.

Before being drafted into the Army for duty in the American Expeditionary Force, he graduated in 1913 from Los Angeles High School, matriculating to the University of California (now UC Berkeley) and “then returned to this city, where he engaged in the real estate business with his brother, Milton Kauffman,” the Times reported.

On his draft registration card, dated June 5, 1917, in which Kauffman describes himself as having blue eyes, brown hair, and being tall and stout, he also lists a well-known, for its time, real estate firm, W.I. Hollingsworth & Co., as his employer.

Foreshadowing his death by artillery fire in the Forest of Argonne in France, Kauffman wrote in his last letter to his parents, two days before he died: 

“We are camping close to the front. The shells are whizzing over our heads all the time. We have had a lot of long, hard marches and camping out — all the real hard doses of army life, but we are all here and still ‘a-going.’ We are all anxious to get into the fight; we have been training so long that we are tired and want some real action. Even now the noise of the big guns is music to our ears. I expect to be able to write a lot of thrilling experiences soon, but cannot tell when,” reads an excerpt included in the Times’ story.

Temple City Park, with a white bandstand in its bucolic center, looks like something right out of “The Music Man.” I easily found the granite obelisk dedicated to Kauffman, which stands tall on the side of the park adjacent to City Hall, apart from the picnic tables and barbecues. At its base, a bell-shaped bronze plaque provided the who, when and where, without shedding any light on why a monument to a Jewish soldier had been placed in such an outlying area. It reads: “In Memory of Joseph L. Kauffman, Sergeant Co. C 364th INF., 91st Division, A.E.F. Who on Sept 26, 1918 at the age of 22, fell in defense of democracy at Argonne Forest France.” Then I noticed an inscription at the bottom, “Erected by Walter P. Temple, Capt. Thomas W. Temple, Walter P. Temple, Edgar A. Temple,” as well as the “Cadets Pasadena Army and Navy Academy.” Could the why be answered by all those Temples?

Though Temple City was named for prominent real estate investor and philanthropist Walter Temple, who had purchased the town’s original tract of 400 acres from Lucky Baldwin, who had purchased it from Jewish real estate investor and wholesaler Harris Newmark, I doubted that the Newmark connection was why the monument was located there. Deepening the mystery, as I pulled away from the curb, I saw that the nearest cross street was “Kauffman Avenue.”

Sticking with my hunch that the Temples held the answer, I got on the I-60, traveling farther east to the City of Industry.

At the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, located in the middle of an industrial park that had grown up around it, the fog-of-war mystery finally began to clear. Speaking with the museum’s assistant director, Paul R. Spitzzeri, I learned that Joseph’s older brother, Milton, was for several years, including the year when his brother died in action in France, Walter Temple’s business manager and friend. Indeed, Kauffman Avenue was named for him. Milton was also working for Temple when oil was discovered on his property in Montebello Hills, and it was there, in 1919, at the intersection of San Gabriel Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue, with oil derricks in the background, that the granite memorial was first placed, Spitzzeri said. It was, in fact, “the first [World War I] memorial to an individual to be erected in California,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Kauffman headstone, Photo by Edmon J. Rodman

At the dedication that day was former California Gov. Henry Gage, as well as Rabbi Hecht, who sadly memorialized the dead soldier, saying, “I have known Joseph Kauffman from the time he was a little boy.” Gen. Johnstone Jones remarked, “This shaft is a gift from Walter P. Temple and his sons,” clearing up that mystery and concluding, “here shall this imperishable shaft stand forever.”

Only it didn’t.

After Temple sold the oil property in 1930, he had the memorial moved to its current location in Temple City, said Spitzzeri, who gave me directions to the original site. “You might want to check it out,” he suggested.

Back on the I-60, one of the rivers that run through this story, I drove west, just past Whittier Narrows and Legg Lake, to a hilly scrubland area in south Montebello, where grasshopper pumps are still taking oil from the ground.

What an isolated spot for a monument. After the unveiling, I wondered, who would have returned, and why wouldn’t relatives and friends have just visited his gravesite instead? But where was it?

Kauffman died in France, and several reports had him buried there, but when I searched on the American Battle Monuments Commission website for his grave, Sgt. Kauffman was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, a call to the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C., gave me a lead.

A freeway trip on the 60 brought me to Home of Peace Memorial Park in East Los Angeles, and the final resting place of Sgt. Joseph L. Kauffman. In an article headlined “Hero’s Body En Route,” the Aug. 8, 1921 edition of the Los Angeles Times had reported that Kauffman’s remains “were due here this week.” Continuing the story, the B’nai B’rith Messenger reported in its Aug. 19, 1921 edition that after Kauffman “was brought home from France,” a funeral was held at the home of his parents, presided over by Rabbi Hecht, and at the interment a “large crowd” most of whom had known and loved the young hero, “assembled to do him honor.”

Left: The window from the Memorial Library, Right: The photo of the Kauffman monument as it stands in Temple City. Photos by Edmon J. Rodman

In the center section of the memorial park, I found the tall, ornately designed headstone that marked journey’s end for Sgt. Kauffman. 

Reaching up, I placed a stone.

Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at edmojace@gmail.com.

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