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Remembering U.S. Jewish war veterans

Logo of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America

Last time, we looked at sites that honour Jewish soldiers from Canada who fought for their country and often paid with their lives. Today, we continue our look at Jewish veterans south of the border, their struggle for recognition – and the people who took up their cause.

The Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America was created in 1894 in response to accusations that Jews had not contributed their fair share as part of America’s armed forces. The site says Jewish participation goes way back to 1654 and Asher Levy, “one of the original 23 Jewish settlers in New Amsterdam, who demanded and secured for himself and fellow Jews the right to stand guard at the stockade. From Colonial time to the present, Jews have played an important role in the defence of the United States of America.”

The JWV says that “Jewish participation in the military during World War II clearly indicates Jews served in the Armed Forces beyond their numerical proportion to the general population.”

People like Airman First Class John Levitow. Levitow is one of over two dozen Jewish recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest recognition for bravery.


In 1969, Levitow was aboard an aircraft in Vietnam when a mortar round ripped thousands of holes in the fuselage and caused an activated flare to roll loose in the cargo area. Despite his injuries, Levi-tow “threw himself bodily upon the burn-ing flare… He dragged himself back to the rear of the aircraft and hurled the flare through the open cargo door. At that instant, the flare separated and ignited in the air, but clear of the aircraft.”

Unfortunately, some Jewish heroes had to wait far longer to be rewarded for their bravery. It took almost a century and a great deal of tenacity to get William Shemin his rightful recognition. While serving in France during World War I, Sgt. Shemin “sprang from his position in his platoon trench… dashed out across the open in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine-gun and rifle fire.” Under fire, Shemin took command of the platoon until he was wounded.

But Shemin’s efforts were never officially recognized, an omission that his daughter said was due to anti-Semitism. Elsie Shemin-Roth lobbied Congress to bestow on him a Medal of Honor, even though that normally must happen with-in five years of the act of heroism. Congress finally agreed, and in a June 2016 ceremony, President Barack Obama presented posthumous awards to Sgt. She-min and to Pvt. Henry Johnson, a black World War I veteran whose heroism had also been ignored.

Obama told Shemin-Roth, “As much as America meant to your father, he means even more to America. It takes our nation too long sometimes to say so. Because Sgt. Shemin served at a time when the contributions and heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked.”

Memorial to jewish chaplins at Arlington National Cemetary.
Memorial to Jewish Chaplins at Arlington National Cemetary.

Although Jews had been serving since before America had declared independence, it was only in 1862, after Jewish leaders petitioned Abraham Lincoln, that a law was passed permitting non-Christian chaplains to serve in the military.

And it was only in 2011 that 14 U.S. Jewish chaplains who died in combat, in accidents or of natural causes were honoured for their sacrifice. These of Jewish clergy were officially commemorated with a monument at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Inscribed on it is a verse from 2 Samuel, “They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.” (Don’t miss the Huffington Post’s very impressive slide show about this event.)

Jewish grave at Arlington National CemetaryHISTORICAL MARKER DATABASE
Jewish grave at Arlington National Cemetary HISTORICAL MARKER DATABASE

Anyone who has ever visited Arlington Cemetery will be struck by the rows upon rows of graves most of which are marked with crosses and the occasional Star of David. Many of those Jewish graves were identified thanks to the voluntary work of Ken Poch. Poch, a Vietnam veteran, dedicated 15 years to collecting the names of 2,700 Jewish military services members who are interred at Arlington. Poch passed away in 2003 and is also buried at that cemetery.

“His mission was to tell the stories of those buried in Arlington,” said brother-in-law, Bob Targan. “Each person had a story of how they lived and died. He always said, ‘You’re dead only if you’re forgotten.’”

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