“As a Jew, it was Hitler and me. That’s the way I pictured the war.”
– Theodore Diamond, U.S. Army Air Force
The Museum of Jewish Heritage’s oral history collections number over 3,800 interviews. While many of these recordings are the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, one oral history project stands apart. The GI collection consists of 423 interviews with Jewish veterans of World War II, conducted in conjunction with the Museum’s first major temporary exhibition, the award-winning Ours To Fight For: American Jews and the Second World War.
Recorded between 1999 and 2003, these interviews document the life history and wartime experiences of women and men from a variety of military branches. Not limited to American soldiers, the interviewees in the collection represent Allied military organizations from countries as varied as the Soviet Union, Britain, France, Poland, and Canada. They also encompass African American soldiers like Lee A. Archer, Jr. and Clayton Lawrence, who protected American bomber planes flying over Nazi territory as members of the all-Black Tuskegee Airmen. Although most Jews who served in the U.S. military during World War II were considered white and thus did not face the de jure racial segregation enduring by Black GIs, Jewish soldiers were nevertheless frequently the targets of antisemitic discrimination from their fellow servicemen and women.
Many Jewish soldiers, like Marvin Tolkin, recalled memories of discrimination relating to the fallacious, antisemitic canard that Jews sought exemption from military service during World War II. For some young soldiers who grew up in predominantly Jewish communities, this was among their first experiences of antisemitism.
Marvin Tolkin was born on May 29, 1926 at the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. While his parents were both born in New York, his grandparents were immigrants from all over Eastern Europe, including Lithuania, Russia, Romania, and Austria-Hungary. Tolkin was the oldest of three sons and grew up in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. There, his family belonged to the Kingsway Jewish Center congregation, and he was influenced by the tightly knit Jewish community. He recalls rarely experiencing discrimination on the basis of his Jewish identity while growing up, although he often heard about his father’s childhood experiences of being bullied and attacked on his way to school.
Tolkin first learned about Nazi Germany from the rabbi at his synagogue and from adults in the community who were European immigrants. He was thirteen years old when World War II began in 1939. Five years later, in February of 1944, he entered Cornell University’s Army Specialized Training Program with his parents’ encouragement. Tolkin was just eighteen years old when he shipped overseas to join the 125th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron in early 1945.
In Europe, staying alive was not easy. Tolkin joined the 125th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron as the Allied Armies pushed past the Siegfried Line and into Nazi Germany, where Tolkin’s unit fought through enemy territory until crossing the Elbe River in April 1945. There, American forces encountered their Soviet allies and learned that victory in Europe had been declared. His squadron received orders to fall back several hundred miles to a location near Bad Neuheim, Germany. There, Tolkin heard that services were about to be held nearby at one of the few German Jewish synagogues that survived the war.
The memories of American Jewish soldiers complement – and complicate – the testimony of Jews who survived the Holocaust in Europe. Although the Allies liberated European Jews from the immediate and overwhelming threat of Nazi annihilation, Allied militaries failed to protect their own Jewish citizens by allowing antisemitic beliefs to proliferate among their troops. The U.S. military also perpetuated the underlying ideology of white racial superiority by consigning most African American soldiers to the least desirable duties and most dangerous positions. These men and women already knew firsthand the danger posed by discrimination and how quickly misunderstanding could turn to hatred. In spite of these difficult conditions, or perhaps because of them, World War II had special meaning for Jewish servicemen and women – European Jewry was truly theirs to fight for.