May 3, 2012 | by Dan Shine
When asked by his family about his World War II service, Martin Dash would spin the same yarn about navigating a destroyer on fog-shrouded Gulf of Mexico waters looking for the Panama Canal. He was lost and had to signal a passing ship for directions.
“It was the one story he told, and it made it sound like he was on a cruise ship,” says his daughter Deborah Dash Moore, LSA’s Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History at U-M and the director of the Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. “He never spoke about what it was like escorting ships across to Cherbourg, France, right after D-Day. He never spoke about crossing the Atlantic in ’43 to go to North Africa.”
Moore was content to let it go until1995, when the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII was celebrated. There were countless V-E Day and V-J Day commemorations, the celebration of the American GI, and the remembrance of the Holocaust victims. But Moore knew there was “a missing piece.”
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“The [World War II] Jewish experience wasn’t just the Holocaust,” she says. “My father went into the service and fought. So I knew this was a military experience of the American Jew, but there was [no recognition of] it. It seemed to me to be really important to reclaim that experience because it was a missing piece of the story.”
The experience of a Jewish GI in World War II was different from a Protestant GI from the Midwest, a Baptist GI from the South, or a Catholic GI from the East. There was a specter of anti-Semitism facing Jewish GIs, who wondered how open they could be about their religion. Jews were considered by some to not be as brave or as strong or as trustworthy as other GIs.
They had different, deeper emotions about facing an enemy that was systematically capturing and killing Jews. And Jewish GIs feared the consequences if captured by the Nazis. Would their last name, appearance, or the “H” (for Hebrew) on their dog tags result in being shipped to a concentration camp?
Moore chronicled the experience of her father and his pals, known as the Dragons, who all belonged to the same Brooklyn social and athletic club, in her book, GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation (Belknap Press, 2004).
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Moore is a leading Jewish history scholar who won the 2011 National Jewish Book Award for co-editing the book Gender and Jewish History (Indiana University Press, 2010). She also recently received the 2012 Lee Max Friedman Award Medal for distinguished service in the field of American Jewish history.
But GI Jews was a much more personal project than the others. Her first interview for the book? Her father.
“I asked him, ‘Can I do a real interview with you?’’’ Moore recalls, knowing she didn’t want to hear about the foggy Gulf of Mexico and searching in vain for the Panama Canal.
“He said sure, and we sat down together and we spoke for an hour and a half. He told me all sorts of things I had no idea about, including some incidents of anti-Semitism. Of being denied access to the officers club, and about the one time he was sure they had been torpedoed. Turned out it wasn’t a torpedo, but a big fish had charged into the destroyer.”
Moore says she wrote the book for the Dragons and their children, so they could all know the stories. The real stories. The true stories, not the cruise ship versions.
This point became more important when she interviewed Samuel Klausner, a crew member on a bomber. Klausner told Moore about how he dropped some bombs on a German town late in the war.
“When I interviewed [Klausner], he said to me, ‘We didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know anything about Jews being murdered [in the Holocaust],’’’ Moore says. Then, after the interview, Klausner handed her a letter he’d written home with explicit, even joyful details about how his bombing work was a “small part of a repayment for 5,000,000 Jews;” how there is “one less town in Germany;” and how he took “great pleasure” in this.
Moore says in this case, collective memory—that American Jews didn’t know what was going on—overwhelmed a man’s individual memory. “That was one of the important reasons to write the book,” Moore says, to help set the historical record straight.
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Another reason was to talk about the anti-Semitism the men faced. Moore says the men “internalized” the anti-Semitism and found it difficult to talk about with others who were not in their same shoes.
They recalled having slurs hurled at them, being mocked and taunted, and possibly being denied higher honors and medals because of their religion. One POW blamed his plight on a fellow POW who was Jewish.
Given this backdrop, Jewish GIs struggled with trusting their fellow soldiers while in battle.
“How do you trust an anti-Semite?” Moore says. “That was one of the problems that they struggled with, and so the issue of gaining respect from the anti-Semites was really crucial. The respect would be the basis for trust. For some of the men, they felt they had to be braver, more daring. Others of the men felt you got respect by beating other men up.”
Not surprisingly, the war experience forever changed the Jewish soldiers and shaped whom they would become in the years to come. Moore says the war made the men realize that they were stronger than they thought. It opened their eyes to other parts of the United States, to people they had never met, and to the opportunities that existed in the world. The war also empowered the men to stand up for their beliefs.
“In training them how to fight, the message was that this was a war against fascism,” Moore says. “They believed in that, so when they came back and saw all these aspects of an undemocratic society—the ongoing discussion of quotas in schools, housing restrictions—it was like, ‘We fought for a more just society. We’re not going to take this anymore.’ So it led many of them to a kind of activism that they would not have pursued otherwise.”
For Moore, writing the book also changed her. While she fully supported World War II, she says she protested the Vietnam War, had friends who were conscientious objectors, “and in general had a negative attitude towards the war.”
“But what writing the book did was let me understand a bit more what it was like to be in the military and to have a great deal of sympathy for the men,” she says. “Even if I oppose the military aims of a war, I have a different attitude for the men and women in uniform. Because I recognize a lot of what that experience is, and I appreciate it as I had not before.”