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
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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