The Transformative Tale of ‘GI Jews’
GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation
By Deborah Dash Moore
Harvard University Press, 368 pages, $25.95.
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Contemporary Jewish thought has been shaped by the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel and the transformation of the American Jewish community from a distant, peripheral outpost into the hub of the Jewish world. While much has been written about the Holocaust and Israel, the metamorphosis of American Jewry — and the role that Jewish GIs during the Second World War played in that change — has received scant attention. Deborah Dash Moore’s “GI Jews” redresses this imbalance and illustrates how the war, to quote the late Lucy Dawidowicz, “had a transfiguring effect on American Jews and on their ideas of themselves as Jews.”
Drawing on the experiences of 15 Jewish GIs from out of the half-million American Jews who served in World War II, Moore evokes a rich and thoughtful narrative. It is a broad, diverse group, ranging from Bronx-born, yeshiva-educated Victor Geller to Sioux Falls, S.D.-born Ira Koplow to Polish émigré Akiva Skidell. Unlike most Americans — who, after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, considered the Japanese the main enemy — American Jews “targeted Hitler as the important foe.” Jewish identity, however, would act as both a motivator and a restraint, raising issues of Jewish masculinity and fighting ability.
The military lifted Jews from out of their habitats to places in the United States they didn’t know existed: “Inducted into the vast American military world, Jews would begin to discover their differences.” Food, in the form of pork chops, was the least of those differences. Ethnic culture loomed even larger — much larger than many would have guessed. Most Jewish GIs were kids from the boroughs, not the cosmopolitan Manhattanites they were taken to be by others. (New York, it turned out, was not America.) More importantly, the America they discovered bore no resemblance to the one presented to them in schoolbooks. In the army, they achieved cohesiveness. “Whether they wanted to or not,” Moore writes, “they could not help experiencing the war as Americans and as Jews.”
Of course, the experiences of Jewish GIs differed depending on where they served. Those in the Pacific experienced the war primarily as Americans, not as Jews; their uniforms let them assimilate into the American experience, yet they had to deal with a sense of cultural isolation. For those in the European theater, Moore writes, “Jewish identity could not easily be ignored or repressed in Europe.”
The liberation of the concentration camps brought American Jewish GIs face to face with the real war. After touring the camps, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower summoned Army reporters in the Pacific theater to bear witness as to what was at stake in this war. Among the reporters was one Sgt. Fred Friendly. For Friendly, who went on to create the legendary news program “See It Now,” Mauthausen was an experience so overpowering that he called it “his bar mitzvah, his emancipation, his baptism all rolled into one,” Moore writes.
The allies — and Jewish GIs — went to war to preserve the status quo, to do battle against a fanatical ideology that wished to overturn the world. But in fact, there was no status quo to return to. A new world had emerged. GI Jew emerged from the service with a confidence in his ability to overcome obstacles, less ready to accept discrimination and injustice, and with a stronger sense of his rights as an American. But he’d also learned that his Jewishness was not a separate part of his identity. “The war had changed everything, although it would take time for American Jews to assimilate the breadth of the transformation.”
That process is far from over. “GI Jews” is filled with a deep affection and reverence for the 15 soldiers and others whose tales are recounted. And while there are moments when “GI Jews” resembles an old war movie, with veterans of the Greatest Generation dying at a rate of 1% each month, the stories told here hold a special place in all our hearts.
Robert Rosenberg, a short-story writer, is currently at work on a second novel about Holocaust survivors and their children.