On Saturday, April 28, I marked my father’s 24th yahrzeit. Ordinarily I’d light a candle, place it on the kitchen island before going to services. Then each time I’d walk through the kitchen I’d see the flickering flame and I would envision and recall my father’s smile, his kindness, his intelligence, and his open-mindedness.
I’d say kaddish surrounded by others saying this same these same ancient and familiar words of praise and acknowledgement.
But I was not in Montclair, New Jersey; I was in Lille, France. There was no kitchen island but a counter crowded with the needs of a busy family.
But still in my daughter’s home we lit that candle just as I would have in my own home and told stories about my father to the great-grandchildren whom he never met.
The next morning we left for the Normandy beaches so I was forced to extinguish that candle and relight it later in the day when we reached our destination of Colleville-sur-Mer, a small town not far from Omaha Beach.
But like many dutiful sons before and after him, he joined the family business.
My father never got to see the Normandy beaches where the future of Europe was determined in 1944. But I thought of him often over the next few days.
At Omaha Beach, the sky was grey and overcast; the wind whipped the waves and small flags that lay at the foot of the memorial stele listing names of American dead.
Like the small stones left on a Jewish grave, the piles of coins, crosses and candles- including yahrzeit candles- and one beautiful red rose pay tribute to those dead who are not forgotten even by strangers.
While the names engraved on the sides of the stele are unknown to most of the visitors, they have a familiar American ring- Anderson, Cox, DeBellis, Evans, Goldman, Kennedy, Young. There are scores of names of men, mostly young.
Just feet away from the monument is the entrance to a German bunker and down a slope lies the roiling sea. On a calm day, the beautiful beach where dogs run and children play belies the horror that happened there.
As you look down on the sea from the top of the slope, it is so clear how difficult the landing was. The soldiers exiting the landing craft were clear targets for the guns on top of the cliff. The death toll was extremely high all along the coast.
At one spot, further down the coast, soldiers rappelled up the cliff with specially designed hooks which are on view at a small museum. It was a miracle that any soldier made it up alive.
As one looks at the names, there are many Jewish sounding ones among the dead or missing. In the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, the rows of crosses are punctuated at regular intervals with Stars of David representing Jewish casualties.
It is a misconception that Jews did not serve in the military .In World War II, 550,000 Jews served in the U.S. military; ten thousand died. Another 1,000,000 were members of other Allied armies including the Soviet, Polish, and British armed forces. About 4.3% of all soldiers were Jews -well above the percent of the population-including some who fled Nazi Europe and returned to fight or serve in other capacities.
FDR praised the fighting abilities and service of Jewish men and women. General Douglas MacArthur said,”I am proud to join in saluting the memory of fallen American heroes of the Jewish faith.”
One need not be a soldier or a Jew to have been a victim. In the famous Cathedral at Bayeux, a side chapel is dedicated to peace. Prominently featured is Edith Stein, a convert to Catholicism, who denounced the Nazi regime and asked Pope Pius to openly condemn the Nazis. It is unknown if the Pope ever received Stein’s letter. As a convert, she thought she was safe in the Netherlands until the Dutch Bishops’ Council spoke against Nazi racism. In retaliation, converts in the Netherlands were rounded up and eventually sent to Auschwitz. Stein died there. Among the candles that one could light for peace was one with “shalom” written in Hebrew. In 2014, a bell at the Cathedral was dedicated to Stein who is now known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
As we mark Memorial Day, let us think of those soldiers, sailors and airmen who accomplished what might seem almost impossible. Even Eisenhower was not sure of success. He had drafted a note declaring the D-Day landings a failure just in case they were. Fortunately, he did not need to read that note publically.
To find out more about Jewish servicemen and women during World War II, watch GI Jews on PBS.
Here are some books about soldiers and World War II
Abzug GIs Remember: liberating the concentration camps
Blum The Brigade: an epic story of vengeance, salvation and World War II
Glassman The Morning Glory War (J)
Gumpertz The Jewish Legion of Valor
Davis Jews Fought, Too (J)
Fridman Jews in American Wars
Klein The Hours After: letters of love and longing in the war’s aftermath
Suberman When it was Our War: a soldier’s Wife on the Home Front