Walter Lese lived during three centuries and witnessed some of modern history’s most earthshaking events. He was also one of the last surviving Jewish veterans of the First World War. With his passing, an occasion arises to mark the end of an era — and to remember a proud chapter of American Jewish history.
World War I was the first American military conflict in which Jews played a significant role. In the early years of the 20th century, the American Jewish community swelled in size to more than 3 million, about 250,000 of whom enlisted in the armed forces, eager to defend their country and to end the bloodshed in Europe.
Jews were by no means strangers to the American military. More than 50 years earlier, during the Civil War, the basic rights of Jews in the armed forces were won with the approval of Jewish chaplains. Small numbers of Jews had continued to serve in the latter part of the 19th century, and at least 5,000 Jews served in the Spanish-American War from 1898 to 1900. World War I, however, represented a mobilization on a much larger scale and was a precursor to the still larger mobilization of World War II some 25 years later.
In 1917, so many Jews were joining the ranks of the armed forces that the organized Jewish community began providing for their religious needs. The Departments of the Army and Navy (later the Department of Defense) recognized the Jewish Welfare Board to certify rabbis to serve as Jewish chaplains and to provide other forms of support. Between 1917 and 1918, the JWB certified 25 rabbis who were successfully commissioned as chaplains in the armed forces, 12 of whom served overseas. The board also published a pocket military prayer book for Jewish soldiers and sailors and distributed 220,000 of these books along with other ritual objects and with Hebrew Bibles. Military rabbis served as chaplains to all soldiers in the armed forces, but they also organized worship services for Jewish personnel at bases stateside and overseas.
Lese was born September 18, 1899, and enlisted in the United States Army in August 1917. Like many New Yorkers, he was sent to Camp Upton (now the site of the Brookhaven National Laboratory) in eastern Long Island for training. When his unit shipped out to France in 1918 to join the American Expeditionary Force, illness prevented him from being deployed. However, he continued to serve at Camp Upton throughout the war. He was honorably discharged with the rank of sergeant and was awarded the World War I Victory Medal and the New York State World War I Service Medal.
After the war, Lese studied to be an accountant and was licensed as a certified public accountant in New Jersey. During his long career, he became a managing partner in what is now the firm of Alexander Grant & Co. He also authored a textbook on real estate accounting and taught that subject at the City University of New York. On his 100th birthday, Baruch College awarded him an honorary degree.
Lese was a proud and devoted Jew and a proud American. As a volunteer driver for the Red Cross during World War II, he worked without vacation to cover for the men in his firm who were serving in the armed forces. One of Lese’s sons served in the United States Army from 1956 to 1958, continuing a family tradition of service that extends back to the Civil War, when Lese’s maternal grandfather served in the Union Army.
During the final two months of his life, Lese resided at the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University. He passed away January 27, 2004, at the age of 104, and was buried with military honors at Long Island’s Calverton National Cemetery. At the burial, a Jewish War Veterans honor guard stood by his coffin. Lese’s final resting place lies only a short distance from the site where he performed his service to his country some 85 years prior.
Stanley Lane was born Samuel Levine in Warsaw and in the early 1900s and was raised in New York. In 1917 he enlisted in the cavalry, lying about his age, as he was only 16. During World War I he remained stateside, but continued to serve in the military until 1929. Later, during the Depression, he re-enlisted. By World War II he was commissioned an as officer in the Quartermaster Corps. He served in England and North Africa and continued to serve through the Korean War, retiring with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Lane passed away at age 103 on July 15, 2005.
Max Grill was born April 24, 1900, and grew up on New York City’s Lower East Side. He was a young officer who served near the end of World War I, reaching the rank of lieutenant. Like Lese, Grill became a CPA after the war and was long active in the Jewish community. He and his now-deceased wife endowed several programs in New York City, at both Yeshiva University and their synagogue, The Jewish Center. In an interview on his final Memorial Day, in 2005, he said: “I always look backwards and think of the mistakes that people around this world make…. Perhaps in days to come, the world will be a more peaceful world to live in where people will respect one another.” Grill passed away at age 105 on December 2, 2005.
Thus, an important chapter in American Jewish history comes to an end. At a time when Jews were first emerging as a significant religious and ethnic minority, Jewish doughboys proved as willing to risk life and limb as any other American. Their service, like that of American Jews before and after them, demonstrated that when it came to matters of country, no sacrifice was too great.
Rabbi Joseph S. Topek serves as the Jewish chaplain of the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University, State University of New York, where he also serves as director of the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life. He writes and does research on American Jewish military history.