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H for Hebrew . . . H for Hero

During World War II, military dog tags only recognized three official religions: P for Protestant, C for Catholic and H for Hebrew. Fighting Nazi Germany took on special significance for Jewish American servicemen in the European Theater. Even those Jewish soldiers and sailors who were serving elsewhere in World War II understood that defeating the Axis would be a defeat for blind hatred of any ethnic group or nationality.

Photograph from the Milton Stern Collection. ca. 1940s Dusk in the city; watercolor with graphite, 5 1/4 x 9". 1944

In a new web presentation, the Veterans History Project (VHP) offers the wartime stories of 10 men who served in World War II with that great sense of urgency.

Milton Stern enlisted in the Army Air Force in October 1941, six weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fresh out of high school in Rochester, N.Y., he was working in a defense-related job that might have exempted him from service, but he was determined to serve in uniform. By March 1944, he was flying as a navigator in a B-17 in bombing missions over Germany. The enemy shot down his plane over Holland, and after 10 months of being sheltered by Dutch partisans, he was captured and sent to a POW camp. Being captured relatively late in the war had its advantages: Stern’s identity as a Jew was known to his captors, but they were too distracted by the advancing Allied forces to transfer him to a death camp. He kept a secret diary, which detailed his dwindling rations, as well as wish lists. By May 1, 1945, the German guards had fled the camp, and the prisoners’ Russian liberators had arrived.

John Horn’s experience in World War II was less dangerous, but in his job as an intelligence officer stationed in Berlin during the Occupation, he had a chance to find out what happened to some of his family members who had not been able to get out of Germany. In October 1945, Horn wrote a moving and eloquent letter home, in which he detailed the fates of several of those family members. He described how a female relative was arrested in 1943 for having two sets of identification papers, and soon thereafter the Gestapo sent “a shipment” to Auschwitz. “That shipment,” Horn wrote to his loved ones, “contained a part of me, and you.”

Also included in this group of veterans is Tracy Sugarman, a Naval officer who captured his experiences in England and on the beaches at Normandy in vivid paintings and lovingly composed letters he mailed home to his wife.

“Jewish Veterans of WWII” is part of VHP’s ongoing “Experiencing War” series, which chronicles Americans in conflict using first-hand accounts and narratives.

Commissioned by Congress to collect and preserve the recollections of Americans who served during wartime, the Veterans History Project relies on volunteers to interview veterans and submit their recollections, along with letters, photographs, memoirs and other documents, to the Library of Congress to be archived and shared with future generations.

A. Photograph from the Milton Stern Collection. ca. 1940s. Veterans History Project. American Folklife Center. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction.

B. Dusk in the city; watercolor with graphite, 5 1/4 x 9". 1944. Tracy Sugarman Collection. Veterans History Project. American Folklife Center. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction.