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The Great War’s Jewish Soldiers

On Veterans Day, I remember my grandfather, who fought in World War I as a Jew and an American

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Pvt. Benjamin Feinstein. (Courtesy of the author)

From the European front, Benjamin still wrote frequently to his parents and siblings, even dispensing brotherly advice to his sister Frances and his brother Louis. “Sister … it is my greatest wish that you take an example of married life from our dear mother and father … And follow their advice in everything they tell you, as they know the game from A to Z. And this should be followed by my dear brother in college life and later in married life.” Benjamin’s service was not without its pleasures. Like other doughboys, he used his time off to travel to Paris, Nice, and Monte Carlo. “Oh, boy, oh, joy what a time,” he wrote his brother. It is apparent that the joyful times included a girl. Marie Giane Galleti, whose letter (which my father had translated from Italian) is also among my grandfather’s papers, wrote to the American serviceman: “I think night and day of you and I believe that you also think of me. It would give me a lot of pleasure to have news from you. A thousand kisses.” Despite the excitement of the romance, it may have been a revelation to the Jewish boy that he was fully accepted as an American soldier, transcending the religious and ethnic divides that characterized his childhood.

The war drew to a close amid fierce fighting. On Sept. 19, 1918, Joseph’s battalion attacked the Turkish army in the Battle of Megiddo, emerging victorious; it was only another month before Turkey surrendered. Within days, Benjamin’s division in France began preparing for the Argonne offensive, a three-month battle that took place in the rugged French terrain. The battle was to be one of the last of the war, and one of the deadliest. Over 100,000 Americans lost their lives. Fighting alongside the French and British, American men were surrounded by the sounds of machine guns and airplanes. The Allies progressed, capturing areas formerly held by Germany. Finally, on Nov. 11, 1918, the armistice was signed; celebrations in Paris included marching, singing, and shouting.

After his discharge, Pvt. Benjamin Feinstein returned with his unit to New York. He worked for the rest of his life as a commercial painter, a patriotic and proud American to the core, only stopping for a time during World War II to work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Benjamin married Bessie Silverman, and the couple raised two sons. His eldest son was drafted and served in the Pacific during World War II; his younger son, my father, served stateside in the Air Force during the Korean conflict. Like many young men, both boys used the G.I. Bill to help them complete college and attend law school.

Joseph, like many of his fellow Jewish Legionnaires, contracted malaria and suffered from shell shock. After some time in British military hospitals, he was discharged in 1919 and returned to Detroit, where he resided for the rest of his life, running a grocery store. Joseph’s war memories were mixed, filled with both pride and distress. At one point, he traveled to Israel and received a medal for service from Golda Meir. Ultimately, however, Joseph’s daily life was punctuated by jumpiness, outbursts, and sensitivity to loud noises, undoubtedly the legacy of what we now call PTSD. Joseph married fellow immigrant Sarah Norber and fathered two girls and two boys, several of whom grew committed to Zionism, perhaps inspired by their father’s service.

While Benjamin and Joseph served in different armies and on different fronts, they shared a key experience: the experience of democracy and belonging. The words of Yitzak Liss, a Jewish Legion member, express this sentiment well.

April 29, 1919: Today is the anniversary of a year of my service, a good year for me. I don’t think I will forget it, ever. A year of joys and suffering in full measure. It seems that only yesterday I said good-bye to my dearest. … The best I saw of army life is that one can live in equality, in the battalion, especially our Jewish battalion where people from all corners of the globe with different views, knowledge and trades live together, sleep, eat, dress alike, a true democracy in this respect.

Looking back, I now realize that when my sister and I played the “American first or Jewish first?” game, we forgot something critically important. We forgot to thank our grandfather and men like him for making the choices that allowed two little Jewish girls to ask the question in the first place.

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Interesting piece. And great story telling.

lenny46 says:

I guess reading a story like this, is the real reason I like Tablet Magazine. This story was about somebody else, yet was so much in my own time line. I remember asking my grandfather questions he never wanted to answer, and given the losses, I understand why. This was a “good read” for me.

Thank you for sharing a wonderful story!! xo

Depressingly, there are some who argue that America’s entry into WW1 helped create the lopsided victory that allowed punitive conditions to be imposed on Germany…and we all know what came after that. So there’s a cruel sense in which their sacrifice may have been in vain.

Interestingly, the Russians were the most viciously antisemitic nation in this war, to the point where many Zionist leaders supported the Germans. 100,000 Jews served in the German army…and were rather dismayed to find, a few decades later, that nobody cared.

Helen Maryles Shankman says:

Wonderful story. And I hung this poster in my sukkah this year!

I found it odd that no mention was made of Australian General Sir John Monash, commander of Australian forces, Europe, during the Great war (1914-18) under whose command American troops were placed. Most Americans don’t know that US soldiers came under Australian command during WW1, nor that the Australian General and Chief of Staff, whom Churchill called “the greatest general of the great War”, was Jewish. Sir John got some anti-Semitic stick from fellow, mostly British, senior officers but he was beloved by his men – British, Australian and American as he fought the war not as a slaughter-house but with stretegic life saving and protecting logistics. Before being placed under General Monash’s command, the poorly trained Americans were being used as cannon-fodder. The US and Australia have been close friends and allies for a very long time – it may be the US’s oldest allience – and US troops under Australian command (and vice-versa – as is currently happening in Afghanistan and other theatres) is just another aspect of this long-standing relationship.

Mr. Joachim,

Thanks for reading and for sharing this information…. I look forward to learning more about General John Monash, especially since my mother’s family ended up emigrating to Australia.

Dearest Naomi,
there are extensive details on the life and times of Sir John Monash, you might like to try the Australian War Memorial – Canberra website, or there is a site / doco devoted to famous Australian Jews – we’ve had two Governors-General who’ve been Jewish, along with a number of highly decorated military leaders. judges, politicians, business leaders and so forth [the things you can do in a nation that has never had any overt anti-Semitism] and Jews make up .05% of the population. My wife and I (we are pretty old in the post 65 generation) are part of a growing Jewish community in the far northern Australian tropics (Cairns, QLD) called YACHAD (‘Together’) and consists of Jews from almost every tradition and ethnic background – we have Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese Jews, North African, European (Ashkenasi), Russian, British, Orthodox (and some very unorthodox), Haradi and secular, and, guess what? We all like each other and get along. We will eventually create an ‘open shule’ – a trans-denominational synagogue. Maybe it’s because we are laid back Aussies. Loved your story about your grandpas, you write very well, to where in Oz did your mother’s family emigrate? Blessings and best wishes to you, your family and the good people at Tablet.

I’d love to learn more about your community…. my mother’s family lived for 10 years in Sydney/Danville before coming to the US.

Hello & Shalom Naomi,
now that we have an e-mail address for you I’ll get our President Uzi Barnai to add you to our newsletter list, you’ll be the first off mainland Oz to get it. You’d love Uzi, family escaped from Iraq some 30 years ago, moved to Israel where Uzi became a Special Forces Commando, he moved to Australia after war service and became a dive master here on the Great Brrier reef. He’s now married to the beautiful Katia, former Russian ballet dancer and they have two beautiful daughters, 5 and 3 whom I think my wife wishes to kidnap – I blame the granny hormones. What else have you written, I think I told you you write very well. Me, when I was working I was called an Epigrapher, a kind of archaeologist who deals with ancents rexts and fragments. You can find my books on Kindle.
Regards and blessings, Richard-Rafael

John D. Wilson says:

Please be advised that the following statement in the article is incorrect.

Meanwhile, Joseph began his Jewish Legion training just across the Detroit River in Canada, at Fort Edward near Windsor, Ontario

The Jewish Legion training actually took place in Fort Edward, Windsor, Nova Scotia.

ivor samuels says:

good story but dont exaggerate the role of the Jewish Legion in the Palestine campaign. Jerusalem had been liberated by the time they arrived in Palestine having disembarked in Alexandria and marched cross the Sinai – like the children of Israel exodus from Egypt! My father who was in the 38 royal fusiliers largely raised in the Jewish East End of London told me he spent most of his time guarding Turkish prisoners and the most dangerous enemy was malaria .

Jeff Carpenter says:

100,000 Americans lost their lives in the battle for Argonne? Doesn’t sound correct—though war and death are hardly worthy of quibbling. One death is too many.

2000

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The Great War’s Jewish Soldiers

On Veterans Day, I remember my grandfather, who fought in World War I as a Jew and an American

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