Weekly Reader: The Jewish Soldiers of World Wars I and II

The Jewish experience in World Wars I and II was so traumatic that we often forget that Jews fought in those wars as well. Whether they were citizens of the Russian or Austro-Hungarian empires during World War I, Soviet citizens during World War II, or immigrants (or the children of immigrants) to the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, Jews fought to defend their countries and served with distinction. In some of the most famous cases they were among the troops who liberated German concentration camps after the Holocaust. In honor of Veterans Day, here are a few of their stories.

—Ezra Glinter


On Bloody Paths

Three soldiers stand in a trench, debris surrounds them, sepia toned

As a young man, S. Cohen had only been in the United States for seven years. Now he was being called to risk his life and possibly die for a country he knew little about, except that it had provided him shelter from an even harder life in Russia. In these selections from his World War I memoir, Cohen is in France, and his first encounters with the war-weary citizens foreshadow the incredible hardships and dangers ahead.

Read a translation of On Bloody Paths by S. Cohen


Minsk Muck

Trees on a pale green lawn, in front of a city skyline with a cloudy sky, photograph

Minsk Muck is a twenty-one-part poem by Soviet Yiddish poet Izi Kharik, originally published in 1924. Pinye is the main character, a young orphan from the poor Jewish neighborhood called Blote, meaning muck—which tells us much of what we need to know about the challenging life people led there. Through the poem we watch as Pinye grows up in poverty, experiences his first moments of rebellion against the status quo, and eventually joins the revolution as a Red Army soldier.

Read a translation of Minsk Muck


The Paratrooper

Headshot of Meyer Horowitz wearing his soldier's uniform, black and white photo

Many of the Jewish soldiers who served in the American army during World War II were the children of immigrants, and many of them spoke Yiddish. But few of them were themselves Yiddish writers. Meyer Horowitz was an exception. Though he grew up in New York attending public school he also went to the schools of the Workers Circle. During the war he served as a paratrooper in North Africa and the European theater, and afterward wrote about his experiences (in Yiddish) in a book titled Experiences of a Jewish Paratrooper. Incidentally, he also wrote an article (in English) about paratrooper slang in the Oct.Dec. 1948 issue of American Speech, which you can find if you’re blessed with the right library access.


Read Experiences of a Jewish Paratrooper




The Gunner

Norman Lear wearing glasses and a white fedora

Norman Lear was a radio operator and gunner in the American Air Force and later went on to a distinguished career as a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood. (Seriously: he has All in the Family and The Jeffersons to his credit.) In this oral history interview he remembers what he felt during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s subsequent entry into the war, his eagerness to enlist in the military, and his moral quandary when he realized that they were also bombing and killing German civilians.


Watch an interview with Norman Lear




Lost Songs

Red text surrounded by brown colored handwritten letters


Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II is a recording of music created during the darkest chapter of European Jewish history. During these years, a group of scholars attempted to preserve songs written by Jewish Red Army soldiers, refugees, victims, and survivors of Ukrainian ghettos. Following the war, the researchers were arrested during Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge, and their works were confiscated. In the early 2000s, Yiddish professor Anna Shternshis traveled to Kiev, where she discovered that these songs had survived. In this podcast episode Anna shares the history of these deteriorating, fragile documents, which contain some of the most poignant and historically important Soviet Yiddish songs of World War II.


Listen to a podcast with Anna Shternshis