When Mariellen Miller was a child growing up in Cleveland, she noticed a photo in her house of a handsome young soldier in uniform. She’d always ask her mother and stepfather who was in the photo, and all they’d say was that it was Miller’s stepbrother Kenny, who passed away in WWII. Her stepfather, who’d married Miller’s widowed mother, was too distraught over his son’s death to speak about it. For years, she’d stare at the photo, wondering what her stepbrother was like.
Many decades later, after her stepfather passed away, Miller decided to investigate and find out who her stepbrother was. “I never knew anything about him because my father didn’t want to talk about it,” said Miller. “So after my dad died, my brother and I decided to look Kenny up and find out all we could about him.” Miller learned that her stepbrother, Kenneth Earl Robinson, was an athlete, and was on his high school’s swim team. Shortly after WWII broke out, Robinson joined the U.S. Air Force, and became a navigator on a B-17 aircraft. After becoming a second lieutenant, Robinson took part in one of the first daylight raids over Germany, and died in 1943 at the age of 22.
Miller learned that Robinson was buried in the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium—even finding his grave number. Soon after, a cousin of Miller’s was touring Europe and promised to visit the grave. “When my cousin got home, she said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but there’s a cross on Kenny’s grave.’ And I was so upset that I said, ‘OK, I’m going to rectify this.’” Miller knew that it would be important to her late stepfather for Kenny to have a proper Jewish burial under a Star of David, so she went to work trying to right this wrong. “I dug up all of the information about Kenny being bar mitzvahed,” said Miller. “I even spoke to the rabbi that conducted his bar mitzvah and learned that Kenny went to see him the night before he left for active duty, and Rabbi Cohen blessed him.”
Miller connected with the superintendent of the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium and explained the error in her stepbrother’s burial. “I inquired about changing it, but the superintendent said, ‘It’s just a long process, you can try and change it, but it will take years.’”
Eventually, Miller connected with a rabbi associated with the U.S. Air Force, who let Miller know about an organization that could give her stepbrother a proper gravestone.
Operation Benjamin is an organization devoted to preserving the memories of Jewish American soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice while defending the cause of freedom during WWII. Shalom Lamm, Operation Benjamin’s CEO, grew up in Manhattan and always had an obsession with U.S. military history, so much so that while working full time and raising five children, he went back to school and received a master’s degree in American military history. Around the same time, a rabbi and Lamm’s close friend named Jacob J. Schacter led a small tour through France, where he visited the Normandy American Cemetery. He returned from the trip and let Lamm know that while he was very moved by the experience, he expected to see more Stars of David in the cemetery. “It just set us on this quest,” said Lamm. “I began a journey trying to understand how many Jewish graves there should be. If you just did the math, 2.7% of U.S. casualties were Jews, so there should have been about 240 Jewish graves. But there were only 149. Where did the Jews go? And it was this amazing question that nobody had dealt with before.”
Lamm and Schacter assumed that many fallen Jewish soldiers were mistakenly buried under Latin crosses, and conducted an experiment to see if their theory was true. They searched a soldier with a Jewish-sounding name and chose Benjamin Garadetsky, who was buried under a Latin cross at the Normandy American Cemetery. To confirm whether he was indeed Jewish, they set out to find more information on his family; they learned that Garadetsky’s parents were buried in a Jewish cemetery just 10 minutes from Lamm’s home in Long Island. Lamm visited the cemetery and confirmed that Garadetsky’s parents were buried under a Jewish headstone, with Hebrew lettering. “So, why is their son Benjamin buried under a Latin cross?” asked Lamm.
Lamm and Schacter contacted the American Battle Monuments Commission to understand the reasoning, and discrepancy behind this. ABMC told them that if they wanted to change his headstone, they needed to prove that Garadetsky was Jewish, and that they had no ulterior motive in proposing the change. After failing to find Garadetsky’s family, they took out an advertisement in the New York Jewish Week. “The ad said that we were historians looking for this family, and here’s two alternative spellings of the name,” said Lamm. “And wouldn’t you know, a couple of weeks later, we got a call from a legal secretary who said, ‘I once did work for a family of that name there in St. Louis.’” After many more steps, they eventually connected with the great-nephew of Benjamin Garadetsky. And as they learned through one of their first conversations, Garadetsky’s great-nephew had also discovered his great-uncle was buried under a Latin cross, and wrote to the ABMC to have it changed, and nobody ever responded. “We took up the challenge,” said Lamm. “We were very determined, and in June of 2018, Private Garadetsky’s grave was changed, and finally marked with a Star of David. It was an amazing ceremony, with Garadetsky’s extended family present.”
“It was around this time that we learned this wasn’t an isolated incident,” said Lamm. “It turns out there are 13 WWII cemeteries, and in at least 12 of them there are hundreds of Jewish soldiers buried under crosses, mistakenly.” It was then, in 2020, that Operation Benjamin was created—named for Benjamin Garadetsky. Lamm left his career in real estate to become CEO of this new nonprofit. Lamm estimates that there are between 400 and 500 Jewish soldiers mistakenly buried under crosses. Their goal is to find Jewish soldiers at American military cemeteries, and give them a proper Jewish burial and headstone.
When Mariellen Miller connected with Shalom Lamm, she had to provide all of the information she could find to prove her stepbrother Kenneth Robinson was Jewish. After Miller worked with Operation Benjamin for years, Lieutenant Kenneth Robinson’s headstone was finally changed in 2022 from a Latin cross to a Star of David. Miller attended the ceremony with her daughter and grandchildren, and was extremely appreciative for Operation Benjamin’s work, and the opportunity to attend. “I don’t think there was a dry eye among my family,” she said. “It was a beautiful ceremony, I gave a speech at the gravesite, and we all put our stones on my stepbrother’s grave.” Although he wasn’t there physically, Miller felt her late father’s presence spiritually, and knows he was proud.
Now with two full-time genealogists, Operation Benjamin has done work in France, Luxembourg, and the Philippines. They credit much of their success to a collaborative partnership with the American Battle Monuments Commission. “ABMC’s mission is to tell the stories of the fallen soldiers to appropriately commemorate them, and make sure that is something that lasts into perpetuity for future generations,” said Alison Bettencourt, director of public affairs for ABMC. “When you have that responsibility to tell those stories, you want to get the story right. That’s why this partnership with Operation Benjamin feels very important and continues to be a partnership that we’re really happy to have.”
This month, for Memorial Day 2023, Operation Benjamin will be leading a mission of over 60 participants to correct historical errors at the Normandy American Cemetery and Brittany American Cemetery in France. Soon they’ll be working to change the graves of American Jewish soldiers buried in Italy and England. “We’ve changed 23 headstones so far, and we have another 30 or so that are under active investigation,” said Lamm. “And as we go through those, we will continue further and further.”
Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.