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Jewish WWII veterans remembered
by Tim Shaunnessey, Contributing Writer
In just a matter of weeks, the collective voices of more than 400 World War II veterans will tell their stories in an exhibition meant to encapsulate the realities of a pivotal time in history.
“Ours to Fight For: American Jews in The Second World War,” will make its Midwestern debut at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive in Skokie, Ill., Feb. 19 and will remain open to the public until June 17.
In an effort to communicate the hardships of what it meant to be American and Jewish during a climactic time in the history of both cultures, the exhibition will detail the experiences of Jewish servicemen and women during World War II.
“This is among the most poignant and personal exhibitions that we have had the privilege of hosting, as it highlights an essential part of the war effort,” said Rick Hirschhaut, executive director of the museum.
According to Arielle Weininger, the museum’s chief curator of Collections and Exhibitions, the exhibition will incorporate the use of multimedia content and feature interviews with more than 400 Jewish veterans.
Robert Morgenthau, World War II Navy veteran and former chairman of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, formed the concept of the exhibit in 1999 by having Jewish veterans record their stories.
“He knew that his generation was not sharing their stories the way they needed to, in ways people could learn from,” said Abby Spilka, associate director at the MJH. “It was important to capture their stories the same way we were capturing those of Holocaust survivors.”
Shortly after, a team from the MJH sent out a news release requesting interviews with Jewish veterans to inquire about their involvement in the war and whether they could provide any artifacts they might have kept.
The majority of the research was conducted between 1999 and 2002, and the exhibit debuted at the MJH in 2004. That same year, it won the Grand Prize Exhibition of Excellence competition of the American Association of Museums.
The series of remembrances will be featured through audio monitors and video projections, Weininger said. The exhibit will also include actual artifacts with both religious and military significance, along with a series of photographs documenting the various elements of life at war.
A particularly noteworthy artifact is a prayer book used by a chaplain—a member of the clergy attached to a military unit—during the war. According to Spilka, the chaplain who owned the book was shot in battle, but the prayer book carried in his pocket stopped the bullet and saved his life.While much of the exhibition contains the same material it had in past showings, the IHMEC will introduce a pair of unique elements to this version.
The first is an item from the museum’s own collection: a pair of dog tags with an attached mezuzah, a small container that held a rolled-up section of religious text occasionally worn as an amulet of protection.
“The Jewish Welfare Board would give those to Jewish service people during the war, and there’s a little ‘H’ stamped into the dog tags, which stood for ‘Hebrew,’” Weininger said.
The second addition is the “Wall of Honor,” a new concept that will feature submitted photos of Midwestern Jewish veterans. Weininger said there would be a total of 392 servicepeople honored on the wall.
“[The] photos are coming in from Chicago and Skokie, but then we have people who have sent in photos from Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio … I got a call today from someone from Kentucky,” she said.
According to Spilka, the exhibit will provide a great deal of personal gratification for many veterans, allowing them to convey their history to their families. She explained that the collection serves as a summation of that time for veterans who had not or could not express what the experience was like.
“We knew for veterans it meant so much to be able to bring their children and grandchildren because many of them had not really told their stories,” Spilka said. “Even if they had chosen to not tell their stories, they could at least come to the exhibition with their family and indicate, ‘This is what it was like.’”