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All roads lead to Israel

At The Chaim Herzog Museum of the Jewish Soldier in WWII.

The Chaim Herzog Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War II in Latrun, Israel. Photo by Harel Gilboa.
The Chaim Herzog Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War II in Latrun, Israel. Photo by Harel Gilboa.

Zvi Kan-Tor, a retired Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, is a sabra superman who grew up with a uniquely Israeli perspective on the Shoah and World War Two. Now the director of the Chaim Herzog Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War Two in Latrun, he first thought to honor Jewish soldiers when he and his fellow IDF warriors first noticed Russian veterans in Israel, noting with amusement their chests full of medals.

As he listened to the story of these valiant Jewish heroes, he realized that he and his fellow Israeli soldiers had plenty to learn from Jewish soldiers from all over the world.  

“No one here ever talked about what happened outside of Israel,” Kan-Tor recalled.  “And as the Israeli population doubled after the Shoah, and the IDF was created—we had no tanks, ships and artillery.  While the Palmach was the best trained, the battalions and brigades came from people who fought elsewhere and brought their knowledge to Israel.”

The 23,681 square-foot museum honors the 1.5 million Jewish men and women who were recruited into or volunteered for the armed forces of the Allies, the Partisans and the resistance movements, and perpetuates the memory of some 250,000 Jewish soldiers who gave their lives during World War II.

The project, long in the making, came to fruition near the end of 2023, when the museum opened to the public.  

“Not only does the museum contain a repository of stories commemorating the bravery of Jewish soldiers in WWII, but it also serves as a beacon of inspiration during these challenging times,” Kan-Tor explained. “It connects historic tales of Jewish valor with recent narratives from our own Iron Swords war [against Hamas in Gaza], offering younger generations a profound understanding of the Jewish spirit. This museum showcases the Jewish people’s enduring determination not merely to survive but to thrive, providing a powerful lesson in resilience and triumph over adversity.”

With six wings, the museum begins with an introduction to the war and the Jewish soldier. It goes on to portray the early years of the war, from 1939 to 1941, and the armies of Poland, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, France, Britain, Greece, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. It progresses to the U.K. wing, where visitors learn the story of Benjamin Louis Salomon, a physician who sacrificed his life to cover his patients’ retreat, taking out 98 Japanese soldiers in the process, and experience a dramatic depiction of the Blitz of London.

Visitors then move onward to the war in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, detailing the invasion of the Soviet Union, Moscow, Stalingrad, Leningrad, Kursk, the liberation of Belarus, the liberation of the death camps and the occupation of Berlin, before heading on to the United States, which entered the war in December 1941.

The museum offers insights on the Jewish fighters who participated in campaigns in the Western Desert, North Africa; Sicily, Italy; France and Normandy; the liberation of Western Europe; and the Pacific Ocean.

The fourth wing features the partisan fighters and underground heroes – ghetto and concentration camp resistance fighters. And with an “all roads lead to Eretz Israel” message, Jewish Volunteers from Eretz Israel and T’kuma are detailed in the last wing.

The museum isn’t just for WWII enthusiasts. It is highly interactive and features audio-visual depictions that older children will find fascinating.

In the Soviet wing, the temperature drops noticeably as you enter a snowy battlefield. Detailed dioramas depict several battlefields. In the American Wing, a simulation of the attack on Pearl Harbor features Jewish soldier stories, like that of Salomon Isquith, hero of the USS Utah, who received a purple heart medal after his ship was torpedoed during the attack. Isquith escaped through a porthole, cut a hole in the hull of the ship to save the lives of 461 men and was wounded during the rescue.

A Time Elevator film takes you back in time and sets the scene for the onset of the war. Jewish women soldiers’ stories are an important part of the information shared, and individual soldiers’ battle tales are told in Hebrew, English and Russian. There is even a separate module on Robert Oppenheimer, the Jewish physicist who created the first atom bomb. 

More familiar to most Israelis is the Partisan exhibit, that integrates real film footage along with photos of actors who tell soldiers’ stories. Many of the partisans who fought during WWII managed to make their way to Israel and build the IDF.

Examples of some of the soldiers profiled at the museum include Captain Harold “Smoky” Simon, son of Shlomo and Alice from Bultfontein, South Africa, who is commended for both his actions as a captain in WWII and for his actions in the IDF Military Corps of Israel’s Airforce from 1948-1949. In October 1942, Simon faced serious action during the Battle of El Alamein, the first major turning point in favor of the allies. He was part of the force that pushed the German Army west in its retreat from Egypt into Libia, Tunisia and later to Sicily, where the Allies joined the attacks.

In May, 1948, Simon and his wife Myra, a meteorological instructor, decided to join the Israeli Air Force. In six separate runs over Syria, he flew as a navigator during a night bombing of Damascus—Israel’s first air operation against an Arab capital. He and Myra officially made aliyah after their service, along with their four children, in February 1962.  

Another soldier featured is Maurice Rose, a son and grandson of rabbis from Poland who became a career officer in the United States Army, attaining the rank of major general during WWII. Rose commanded the 3rd Armored Division when he was killed in action in Germany towards the end of the war.  

The countless tales of bravery were collected by the museum and reenacted by professional actors.

There is also a temporary exhibition hall for special exhibits, like soldiers’ artwork and personal writing, as well as a robust research and study center with books, periodicals, speeches, media and online information for the scholar, the reporter, the student and the enthusiast to fully research all aspects of Jewish soldiers, WWII and the nascent state of Israel.

An online registry called “Add a Warrior” allows anyone who was or knows of a Jewish soldier in WWII to share his or her stories in perpetuity. For those who have loved ones who served in the war, this makes this museum especially relevant and meaningful. It is Israel’s own legacy for lesser-known heroes who selflessly protected Jews all over the world.

To register a Jewish soldier who fought in WWII:  https://www.jwmww2.org/Full_Registration  

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