Les soldats juifs de la Grande Guerre : 28 juillet 1914
On Veterans Day, I remember my grandfather, who fought in World War I as a Jew and an American
By Naomi Sandweiss
When I was growing up, raised by Reform Jewish parents in a secular community in Columbia, Md., my sister and I used to ask each other, “Are you Jewish first or American first?” In truth, the hyphen could have gone one way or the other, Jewish-American or American-Jewish, depending upon the circumstances each one of us presented.
Before their World War I service, my grandfather Benjamin Feinstein and my husband’s grandfather Joseph Sandweiss probably wouldn’t have considered such a question. Immigrants who left their homes in Eastern Europe a century ago to escape poverty, persecution, and conscription, both men lived in America’s Jewish ghettos, segregated and identified as Jews whether they liked it or not. Just a few years later, both young men spent 1917-18 at war. Benjamin served with the American army in France, while Joseph joined the Jewish Legion and served with the British forces on the Middle Eastern Front.
In his book The Long Way Home, David Laskin recounts the experiences of immigrant soldiers who represented one-fifth of the U.S. Armed Forces in World War I. He writes, “In many cases just a few years or even months separated their arrival at Ellis Island from their induction in the American Expeditionary Forces. The coincidence profoundly altered the course of their lives.” For Benjamin and Joseph, did their experiences in the Great War shift their perceptions of themselves as Jewish or American? Before their military service, Benjamin and Joseph probably could have never even entertained the question I posed to my sister. But as we mark Veterans Day—originally known as Armistice Day, set on Nov. 11 to commemorate the signing of the armistice that ended World War I in 1918—I am left to wonder about their military service and how it may have influenced their acculturation and shaped their Jewish and American identities.