Jewish warriors of past and present

Russian-Israeli World War II veterans take part in the Veterans Day parade in honor of the Allies' victory over Nazi Germany, in the center of Jerusalem. May 9, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
Russian-Israeli World War II veterans take part in the Veterans Day parade in honor of the Allies' victory over Nazi Germany, in the center of Jerusalem. May 9, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

Today is V-Day for the generation that grew up in the Soviet Union. It’s a day later than for USSR’s former Western allies since the Soviet government wanted to underscore the fact that Prague was liberated a day after the formal surrender of German forces in Berlin, and that World War II (referred to as the “Great Patriotic War” in the USSR) was won by the Red Army. So, on May 9th veterans of the Red Army proudly pin their medals to their best suits and dresses and celebrate and remember. Fewer and fewer of them with very passing year. They always seemed a legion to me even in the US and in Israel — those are mostly Jews. I never understood just how many of them there were.

Today, on May 9th I am attending the formal opening of Chaim Herzog Jewish Soldiers in WWII Museum located on the grounds of Israel’s famous Tank Museum in Latrun. I will be representing Mike & Sofia Segal Foundation that helped make it happen in honor of Mike’s and Radion’s father Yevsey Segal — one of four Segal brothers who fought in the Red Army and Navy in that war.

Chaim Herzog — President Itzhak Herzog’s and Ambassador Michael Herzog’s father — was one of the Jewish soldiers in the British Army. Ever since the Foundation became involved with the project, I have been asking people how many Jews they think participated in WWII as soldiers. The only somewhat accurate answer I ever got was from my colleagues at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History because the Weitzman has an exhibit about the Jewish warriors who were enlisted in the US Army. Otherwise, the guesses I got were in the tens of thousands. Everyone in the Jewish community knows the number of Jews who perished in the Holocaust, but no one seems to know about the Jewish fighters beyond those in Warsaw Ghetto or the partisans.

So, here’s what you will learn that’s documented in the new Chaim Herzog Museum: 500,000 served in the Red Army; 500,000 — in the US armed forces; 400,000 in the other Allied armed forces and 100,000 as partisans. That’s a total of 1,500,000!

Now, here is the math: of the 18 million Jews alive before WWII, 6 million were murdered in the Holocaust; of the remaining 12 million about half were women and some of them fought as well, but 6 million (about half of everyone left alive) were men. Of the 6 million men, about half were either too old or too young to be enlisted. That leaves about 3 million eligible Jewish men in the world. Therefore, 1/2, 50% of all of those eligible Jews were involved in the fight on behalf of their countries! I don’t believe that there was another ethnic or religious group with that kind of participation.

Yet, it is not what you hear about Jews in the War. The prevailing narrative is that Jews were led to slaughter as lambs, meek and compliant. The occasional story of resistance sometimes breaks through but is quickly passed over.

Why is that? Is this not a remarkable story of courage, activism and commitment? You, my English-speaking Jewish reader — don’t YOU know about someone in your family who was part of this heroic tale?

I’d venture to say that many Jews have accepted this particular antisemitic trope about cowardice and lack of spirit to resist being bullied and murdered, along with all the other libelous myths about the Jewish People. We are, apparently, good at handling money, at peddling influence, at controlling the media (isn’t that a joke!), at colonizing and, generally, running the world while being weak-kneed, scared and unable to put up a fight.

It is wholly unsurprising though that it was an Israeli tank division general Zvika Cantor and his fellow Israeli veterans that came up with the idea of a museum dedicated to celebrating and honoring Jewish soldiers who fought in WWII, and many of whom became the core of what became the IDF. IDF has been and will continue to be (in spite of some clear failures such as on October 7th, 2023) the personification of Jewish strength, determination and unwillingness to be cowed or defenseless. IDF has great legacy that it’s been built on. So should do the Jewish communities around the world and lately on college campuses.

I am not suggesting armed resistance to the pro-Hamas mobs at Ivies and other “centers of intellectual discourse and learning”. But I am suggesting the urgent need to organize and to resist these and other assaults on our people and the Jewish State. Our legacy organizations have so far failed to adequately mobilize and lead such resistance and had put their faith into clearly unreliable allies. What we hear more and more are the calls to escape the places where we are attacked for supposedly greener pastures, to abandon the gains our people have made to be an integral part and often leading players in the most prestigious institutions of higher education, government, media and other essential building blocks of liberal democracies.

Well, those of us that lived under the Soviet regime and whose parents and grandparents were victims and survivors of the Holocaust and the GULAG, as well as the 1,500,000 Jewish warriors in the armed struggle against the Nazis, we are not about to give up an inch of the terrain we have won or be forced into another migration.

We call on all Jews and their real allies to stand up, mobilize and fight and win!

About the Author
Dr. Misha Galperin is President of Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History and philanthropic advisor to the M&S Segal Foundation. Dr. Galperin, a clinical psychologist, has over 35 years of proven expertise and achievements running non-profit organizations including as COO of UJA-Federation of New York and New York Association for New Americans, CEO of the Educational Alliance, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Jewish Agency International Development. Author of two books – on Jewish Peoplehood and on Leadership – Dr. Galperin resides in Brooklyn, NY with his family.
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