While the Holocaust is often associated with Jewish victimhood, Yom Hashoah v’Hagvura also highlights the bravery and sacrifices the Jewish people made during this devastating time in history. One such example is the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on April 19, 1943 and lasted until May 16, 1943, as we remember the men, women and children who rebelled when the odds were stacked against them.
During the Holocaust, Jewish rebellion was not only limited to violence; many put their lives on the line in order to instill Jewish education and pride when the world was falling apart. As Jews in the United States, it is important for us to shine light on the bravery of the American Jewish soldiers who fought in World War II and ended up first in line to help those who survived hell on earth.
The number of Jews serving in the U.S. military during World War II was disproportionate to their size in American society. In 1942, there were 135 million citizens in the United States. Only 3 percent, some 4.3 million, were Jewish. However, between 1939 and 1945, slightly more than 12.2 million Americans served in the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. And some 550,000 soldiers, about 4.5 percent of them, were Jewish.
When looking at these numbers, we must remember that during this time, the United States still had significant discrimination against the Jewish community, including restrictions on Jewish doctors in hospitals and Jewish students in universities. These restrictions are what pushed for the founding of Jewish institutions, such as Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., among other facilities and educational institutions. Despite this, Jews volunteered to serve.
For many Jews who did so, it wasn’t merely about fulfilling their duty; it was also about fighting for something bigger than themselves. For some, their sacrifices were properly memorialized, even decades later. For example, in February 2020, a number of crosses in the U.S. military cemetery in Manila in the Philippines were removed and replaced with Stars of David, honoring the Jewish soldiers buried there. Not only is this an important anecdote, but a reminder of the some 38,000 American Jews who were killed in action during the war, in addition to the many thousands more injured.
Of course, dying in defense of one’s country, freedom and values is not the only way to show courage. More than 52,000 Jewish soldiers—almost 10 percent of enlisted Jews—were decorated for bravery. Three American Jews, Ben Salomon, Isadore S. Jachman and Raymond Zussman, received the highest distinction possible: the Congressional Medal of Honor. These little known facts are what prompted U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur to state: “I am proud to join in saluting the memory of fallen American heroes of the Jewish faith.”
For many Jewish soldiers serving in Europe, the end of the Allied fighting was just the beginning of another mission. As the war ended, the horrors of the Nazis came to light. Tens of thousands of American Jewish soldiers, alongside Jewish soldiers from the Red Army and numerous non-Jews, did what they could to help the survivors they liberated from concentration, labor and death camps across Europe. These soldiers later came home, and their memories and experiences shaped the American Jewish community for years to come.
For instance, the 2013 Pew Survey found that 73 percent of American Jews viewed “Remembering the Holocaust” is an essential part of being Jewish. The fact that many of today’s Jews remember the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of their grandparents who fought the Nazis is key to understanding why it is so important in our community’s DNA. However, the American Jewish community’s identity cannot be based exclusively on the past; it must work to build a common future in which all members of the community have a place and a voice, regardless of their background, age or whether they have a disability.
Israel chose the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as the annual date for Yom Hashoah, thereby entwining g’vurah (“bravery”) with the memory of the Holocaust. It’s a day on which we remember the 6 million Jews brutally murdered, as well as the many who stood up to evil. At the same time, it presents our community an opportunity to reflect on the role played by many brave Jewish American soldiers who died so that we could live as free Americans and as free Jews. With that in mind, we must keep striving to build a more just and inclusive community—one worthy of the sacrifices made to get us here.
Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.