Guy Stern, Walter Sears and Fred Howard

By Sabrina Fine, Communications Intern

Dr. Guy Stern is a man of many titles. Literary scholar, Bronze Star Medal recipient and published author- to name just a few.

Stern was born in Hildesheim, Germany in 1922.  He escaped from Nazi Germany and relocated to the United States in 1937 with the help of an uncle and an American Jewish organization.  He hoped that his parents and two siblings would follow.

In 1943, he was drafted into the Army and in 1944 landed in Normandy after D-day as a Ritchie Boy. Ritchie Boys were a military intelligence unit made up of mostly German, Austrian and Czech refugees and immigrants, many of whom were Jewish.

“Beyond the fighting spirit of all GI”s, the knowledge of the Holocaust was an added incentive to put forth our utmost effort in the war, we were refugees; our own families were being murdered,” said Stern.

Since Stern spoke German he was tasked with the interrogation of prisoners of war and defectors. Stern’s story was highlighted in the book Sons and Soldiers, “the untold story of the Jews who escaped the Nazis and returned with the U.S. Army to fight Hitler.”

Stern, along with fellow Ritchie Boy Fred Howard, devised a plan to extract information from German soldiers after previous more traditional methods did not work.

“My friend and comrade Fred Howard found that the German soldiers were afraid beyond everything else of landing in Russian captivity,” said Stern.  “We played on that fear by telling the enemy soldiers that we had orders to turn them over to the Russians, if they did not cooperate. We got vital info for our air force that way.  I disguised myself as a Soviet commissar and liaison officer. I donned a Russian uniform for that purpose; Fred played a soft-hearted American.”

Stern also adopted a Russian accent, despite not knowing how to speak Russian.  Stern’s method allowed him to gather important intelligence as well as earn him a Bronze Star.

“I could make a contribution to the war effort as an interrogator of POWs by introducing mass interrogations in order to assess the strength of the last German replacement divisions and to report on the German potential for gas warfare,” said Stern.

Stern was born in Germany, yet never once hesitated in his allegiance to the United States and he felt very much American.

Guy Stern

As a Jew, American soldier and a human, he never erased memories of what he witnessed in Buchenwald.  In a 1990 oral history recording for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he spoke of the horrors.   When he arrived at Buchenwald, Stern remembered feeling queasy.

His unit helped set up food and water for recently liberated prisoners, yet the prisoners were still dealing with shock and not fully comprehending they were free.

When speaking of the experience, Stern’s demeanor changed. His eyes became heavier and he looked off to the side in search of words to describe the almost indescribable.

He recalled a story of a man who was stooped down to a puddle of muddy water and was readying himself to drink from it.  From Stern’s perspective, it looked like something routine.   Stern’s unit had just set up clean water in the camp for the recently liberated survivors.

The survivor needed to be gently reminded and pointed in the direction of the clean water. Only then did he abandon the dirty puddle.

“To summarize it- it was almost as if you had to unlearn the concentration camp experience,” said Stern about the survivors.

Before leaving Buchenwald, Stern recalled despite their grim conditions and poor health, the survivors seemed very grateful.  He remembers the scene of them coming to the fence to greet the Americans.

After the war, Stern learned his whole family had perished in Warsaw.

In 1948, he graduated Hofstra and went on to receive his Ph.D. from Columbia University in German Literature and Culture. Doing so required Stern to wrestle with some deeply personal decisions.

“I could have entered a variety of fields,” said Stern. “I found to my satisfaction, and that of my professors that I had some gifts for German literature and German cultural history.”

Yet the troubling thought was, if he continued studying German, he would be constantly reminded of Germany and its past and the terrible memories of his youth.

“I came to the recognition I indeed had a gift and to deny it, or to let it lie fallow would be an act of self-amputation, very much like the one they were going to inflict on me, it was doing the work of the enemy,” said Stern. “So, I decided to stay in German.”

He also believed he could make a difference for the victims of Nazi Germany.

“I’ve made the right decision because I’ve lent voice to some writers who may [otherwise] have been forgotten,” said Stern. “I have in a way kept their memory and the memory of their writings alive,” said Stern.

Stern currently directs the Harry and Wanda Zekelman International Institute of the Righteous at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

Volume 72. Number 4. Winter 2018

Army Cadet Jacob Widman from Texas A&M kindles a Havdalah candle during a Jewish ceremony marking the end of Shabbat in Washington D.C.

By: Sabrina Fine, Communications Intern

Jewish Warrior Weekend, an event which brings  together Jewish cadets and midshipmen for a weekend of learning, comradery and celebration of Judaism, took place in Washington, DC, November 8-11.

The event brought together forty-nine officers in training, who had the opportunity to learn about the history of Jewish military service in America.

On Friday, Shabbat services were observed and Saturday evening’s activities included a Havdalah ceremony outdoors in DuPont Circle. Havdalah is a ceremony that marks the end of the Shabbat and is supposed to reawaken the senses, including smell.

In the crisp fall air, cadets and midshipmen placed their arms on each other’s shoulders and swayed in a circle while reciting prayers, watching the glow of a colorful Havdalah candle, sipping from the Kiddush cup and smelling the ceremonial spices. People in the area stopped to watch and photograph the cadets and midshipmen as they joyfully sang and chanted.

Jewish cadets and midshipman celebrate Havdalah in DC.

After the ceremony, Rear Adm. (Ret.) Paul Becker shared inspirational advice to the young future officers on Jewish military life.

“It is good to build a comradery with other Jewish warriors,” said Becker. “As it is, we are few in numbers and there is value and strength in knowing there are others out there like you.”

Often times there are only a few Jewish service members at each a command.

“In some cases, you might be the first Jew they meet and they may have some stereotypes,” said Becker.

Therefore, he stated that Jews in a command have a responsibility to represent a culture. He also stated that it is possible to abuse this representation by overly requesting leave or attempting to fool others about Jewish holidays.

“It is important to prioritize how you put effort as a Jewish lay leader, or toward the Jewish holidays,” said Becker. “For example, High Holidays are at the top but you don’t want to expend any effort trying to convince your chain of command that there needs to be some type of commemoration of minor holidays like Tisha B’av.”

Sunday began with a guest speaker – former Army Officer Phil Carter, a senior researcher who focuses on veterans, military personnel and civil-military relations.

The weekend ended on a somber note, with a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on Sunday afternoon. Ben Kane, Programs Assistant at JWV, led interested participants on a tour.

“I enjoyed the Holocaust Museum in the sense that I am glad that there is a museum dedicated to such a tragic event,” said Cadet Jacob Widman. “It was meaningful because I learned more about the US involvement in the refusal of refugees, and other topics not covered at Yad Vashem.”

Jewish Warrior Weekend is an annual Shabbaton program. This year was sponsored by the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, National Museum of American Jewish Military History, USAA, Jteen Philanthropy, Joseph Goldstein, Rabbi Steven Rein, Dallas Jewish Federation, Temple Sinai, Temple Micah and Stratton-Petit Foundation.

Volume 72. Number 4. Winter 2018

Rabbi Elie Estrin is a Chassid in uniform and the bearer of the first beard in the US Air Force in 3 decades.

My first Chanukah in uniform was a dark one.   Only the day before our scheduled Chanukah party at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, we’d gotten the devastating news that our unborn baby had 3 of the 12 congenital heart defects considered critical. Expectation for survival?   Negative.

Yet the fact that this painful news was thrown at us on Chanukah was itself bolstering; and the fact that I’d share the light of the holiday with my brothers and sisters in uniform was quietly invigorating.   After all, doesn’t this particularly holiday remind us that the fight against all odds is not over before it starts?  And the warriors around me, with their variety of experiences, each with their own tale of survival, were all testament to that.

The Maccabees did not just fight for their religious freedom, and leave it at that.  They sought out that elusive jug of oil because they knew that even after the battles have been fought, more needs to be done.  Victory would ring hollow if not followed up by bringing light anew into the world.

Light, and fire in particular, is so heavily symbolic in Judaism: The flicker of the flame that strives ever upward.  The idea that light will continue infinitely, so long as it does not get blocked – but that the blockage itself reveals that the light is there.  The concept that just a small amount of light dispels a whole lot of darkness.  The Macabees understood all this, and that’s why it was critical to find a source of light; a pure source of goodness and light, immediately after the war and the bloodshed.  Pure oil, extracted from intense crush of the olive press, symbolizing the idea that the most crushing of experiences are themselves transformative; capable of lifting us to become sources of light.

Rabbi Elie Estrin

The fact that they found the oil was itself a miracle.  Perhaps the greater miracle was that they even searched at all.  But search they did; and they indeed found.  And the results were greater than what could have been expected: the legendary seven extra days of light.

Knowledge of this first fortified my mind, and over the next nine weeks until the baby was born, I struggled to wrestle it into my heart.  In my personal fight, the search for oil was both the elusive goal, as well as the weapon of choice.  In our case, we turned deep to our Jewish experiences, and struck oil within them: we fixed our mezuzot.  We held a communal gathering of Torah study. And we celebrated the life we had with the children we had as best we could; working hard to ensure Shabbat remained sacred, pleasant and uplifting.  And every time the doctors asked us for an end-of-life plan for the unborn child, we rebuffed them.

Eventually the baby was born.  His heart functioned not for 4 hours, but for five days, while we fought to get him medical care; eventually resulting in open-heart surgery on his sixth day of life. And this year, our own Chanukah miracle, our little Nissi, will celebrate his second Chanukah as a true source of light to all who see his beaming smile.

And while that original battle might be over, the fight to find and spread more light never is.

Wishing all a Chanukah of ever-increasing light!

Rabbi Elie Estrin

Volume 72. Number 4. Winter 2018

Hanukkah service held in Iraq.

By Ben Kane, Programs Assistant

A well-known fact among the international Jewish community is that sometimes observing Jewish traditions and a Jewish lifestyle can be difficult. For Jewish American military service members overseas, this difficulty stems from a variety of sources. It can come from anti-Semitic fellow service members, from being in a country that is hostile to observers of the Jewish faith, or to simply not having the right items needed for Jewish holidays and customs. One place where being a Jew in the military would likely have its fair share of difficulties is Iraq. Yet, as this story demonstrates, Jewish U.S. military personnel often find a way to express their Jewish faith and traditions even in potentially unfriendly environments.

In October 2005, an idea amongst several Jewish American service members took shape- to plan and hold a successful Hanukkah party or two in Iraq. It had been several years since the last Hanukkah party, and they believed it was due time to celebrate the festival of lights. Calls were made to various organizations that would likely help with the efforts to carry out the party, with Colonel Nelson Mellitz contacting the Jewish War Veterans of the USA. His association with the JWV would continue for years and into the present, with Col. Mellitz eventually becoming the Department Commander for the state of New Jersey, as well as the National Quartermaster.

Calls were made through the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, through the chaplain’s services, through the JWV, and as the word spread, the trickle of Hanukkah memorabilia sent their way turned into a flood. Col. Mellitz soon found his desk and surrounding space in the Baghdad embassy had enough Hanukkah memorabilia for parties far into the future. The effort to celebrate Hanukkah in Iraq was not without a few hiccups. Hesitation amongst some of the captains and lieutenants involved in carrying out the plans for the parties provided some difficulties. The hesitation was rumored to be anti-Semitic in nature, but any issues were resolved by the generals, as well as on an ambassadorial level, allowing the plans for the festivities to proceed.

Army SPC and fallen service member Daniel Agami (far left) stands with the giant Menorah in Iraq in 2006.

As if the Hanukkah celebrations being held in Iraq were not unique enough, the specific location of the parties is noteworthy. The celebrations of the festival of lights for this year and for several after were held in the former palace of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. His opulent palaces, once the seat of power of a tyrant, was now being repurposed for good- for beautiful Hanukkah celebrations. Hanukkah parties at the palace featured music, dancing, and no small number of latkes and chocolates. Included in the agenda were more serious notes like speeches from dignitaries, including Zalmay Khalilzad, at that time the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Initial questions of whether he would be able to attend or not were eventually answered when embassy security staff began posting troops around the area and combing the area with their dogs.

A focal point of these celebrations was the colossal menorah that was designed by LT. Laurie and constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the military contractor KBR. Humorously, the Army Corps of Engineers Captain who was tasked with overseeing construction efforts had no idea what a menorah was until then. The menorah soon became synonymous with the Hanukkah parties at Saddam’s Republican palace and was on display whenever a Hanukkah party took place there.

Many, but not all, of the attendees were Jewish, Col. Mellitz said, creating a heightened sense of camaraderie between service members of different faiths that hopefully has lasted long after the celebration and deployment ended. The Hanukkah parties at the palace and at nearby Camp Liberty, represented by the towering menorah in the palace and at Camp Liberty, served as symbols not just of the overthrowing of tyranny, but of the resilience of the Jewish people and their ability to honor Jewish traditions and customs anywhere in the world.

Volume 72. Number 4. Winter 2018

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) at sea.

By Sabrina Fine, Communications Intern

During the gentle sway of the ship, three of us huddled in the library aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) and lit a

(Dec. 15, 2012) Religious Program Specialist 3rd Class Samantha Haag lights a menorah on the seventh night of Hanukkah aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sabrina Fine/Released)

menorah.  It was a moment of normalcy during a deployment that felt long and stressful.  We were three different ranks and had three very different duties, and yet, we slowly recited the Hanukkah blessing in unison.  It was a moment that brought three of us together to practice an ancient tradition. It also connected us with our families back home.

Hanukkah is an eight-day, winter holiday also known as the “Festival of Lights”.  Hanukkah means “dedication.” It is a celebration of the re-dedication of the Holy Temple.

To me, while deployed in foreign seas, dedication was a significant word.  As a sailor on my first deployment, Hanukkah was a Jewish reminder of being part of something bigger than myself.  The ship had a dedicated mission.  Also, our small Jewish gathering was dedicated to celebrating Hanukkah at sea despite our busy schedules and the small, yet significant number of us.

Volume 72. Number 4. Winter 2018

Rabbi Morton H. Singer receiving a reward.

By Anna Selman

On the Jewish plaque at Chaplain’s Hill, there reads a name: Rabbi Morton H. Singer, USA 17 December 1968.  Weeks later, an article appeared in the Jewish Telegraph Agency titled, “NY Chaplain Killed in Vietnam, Buried in Israel”.  Those eight words encapsulated the death of Rabbi Morton Singer.  However, the story of his service and his life are much more remarkable.

Rabbi Morton Singer was born in New York City in 1936.  Little is known about his childhood growing up in Manhattan, but we do know that he was an avid weight lifter in his youth – he was recognized as the Eastern Intercollegiate Weight Lifting Champion of 1959.  He also was very active in Judo, and he would later serve on the Armed Forces Judo Team.

He went to City College of New York for his undergrad, and he later attended Yeshiva University.  After obtaining his rabbinical degree, Rabbi Singer taught at a Jewish Day School for 3 years.  However, according to his nephew, Jeffrey Singer, “Rabbi Singer felt a strong obligation to serve.  He believed that if there were Jews someplace, he was going to help.

So, during the outbreak of the 6 Day War in Israel, it was only natural that Rabbi Singer signed right up.  During the war, he served as a volunteer in the Bikkur Holim general hospital in Jerusalem.  He would often volunteer to drive the ambulance to evacuate soldiers from the front lines in the West Bank.  It was there that Rabbi Singer found a deep love for Israel, and he promised himself that he would move himself and his family there one day.

After coming back to the states, Rabbi Singer signed up for the US Army, and he went to Chaplains School at Fort Hamilton and basic training at Fort Benning. From there, he went to Fort Sill shortly before deploying the Vietnam in November of 1968.

After arriving in Vietnam, Rabbi Singer was busy conducting Shabbat Services, meeting Jewish soldiers and preparing for Hanukkah.  It was there that Alan Potkin met Rabbi Singer again, “I had seen him only a few days earlier when he tracked me down at the 95th Evac Hospital in Da Nang, where I had been MEDEVACed in with a severed jugular vein from a frag wound.”

On December 17th, Rabbi Singer geared up to conduct Hanukkah services for Marines stations at Chu Lai Air Base in the Quang Nam Province.  The flight there was quick and easy.  Rabbi Singer sang songs, ate latkes and played dreidels with a few Jewish marines.  He packed up his gear, and he went to board his C123 Fairchild to go home.  Seconds after takeoff, there was an explosion in the plane that left 14 dead caused by the crew placing the wrong type of fuel in the aircraft.

Marine Corps veterans Tracy Diffin was one of the first responders to the scene, “I was on Fire & Rescue Crash Crew, and was the first one there. A chopper flew overhead to keep the flames down. It was allegedly bad gas in the craft that took it down. Almost everyone died.  I tried like hell to save everyone I could.”

“Growing up, I was always bothered hearing that my Uncle was killed going to do a mitzvah (conducting Hanukkah ceremonies), because when a person is going to do a mitzvah, they have extra protection from G-d.  I received some form of comfort upon learning that it was only after completing the lighting on take-off from Chu Lai that this tragic event occurred,” said Jeffrey Singer, Rabbi Morton Singer’s nephew.

On January 2, 1968, Rabbi Morton Singer was buried on a hillside near Jerusalem today in accordance with his last wish. His body was laid to rest at Har Hamenuchot, a cemetery for the fallen of the Six-Day War. Funeral services were attended by the chief chaplain of the Israel Army’s Jerusalem area command, the military attache of the U.S. Embassy and relatives who live in Cholon, near Tel Aviv.

Volume 72. Number 4. Winter 2018

The Jewish War Veterans of the USA (JWV), mourns the passing of President George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States. While serving as a Naval aviator during World War II, President Bush earned multiple awards including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and the Presidential (Distinguished) Unit Citation.

Following his military service, he entered the political arena, serving in multiple positions including two terms in the House of Representatives, Ambassador to the United Nations, Envoy to China and the Director of Central Intelligence.

Selected by President Ronald Reagan to be his running mate, he became an important part of the fabric of this nation. When the Jewish War Veterans National Headquarters office moved to its current location, then Vice President Bush nailed in the mezuzah on the door, and we have been so thankful for his and his family’s support over the years.

JWV remembers President George H.W. Bush and we thank him for supporting our nation’s service members and veterans. May his memory always be a blessing and our thoughts and prayers are with the Bush family at this difficult time.