It has been estimated that approximately 600,000 Jews served in the US Military during World War II, 1939-1945. The key turning point of the war was D-Day (June 6, 1944), also known as Operation Neptune, the invasion of France by allied troops who created a bridgehead to the European mainland by crossing the treacherous English Channel to Normandy. The total number of allied soldiers deployed in the invasion of France numbered some 156,000, of whom 73,000 were American. Among that number, as many as 4,000 were Jewish. Employing a dedicated force of 34,250 troops, a major objective of US units was the capture of Omaha Beach. In one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the US 1st and 29th Divisions suffered around 2,000 casualties at Omaha. Many were drowned trying to wade ashore in the face of a constant barrage of German machine guns and other fearsome weaponry. On June 6, this year, the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The following piece tells of one Jewish serviceman who died from wounds he received during the invasion. As Jews, we should never forget the incredible events of D-Day, the heroic sacrifices and deeds of courage that, at terrible cost, freed us from the Nazi scourge.
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Writing to my mother on September 18, 1944, my father enters that “Very much, and to my deep regret did I learn that my 2nd cousin Buddy Friedman has been killed in France. [Until now] the news has been kept a secret.” He was writing from London where he was stationed in the Home Guard [i.e. the British equivalent of the American National Guard] with the responsibility of helping the rescue of victims of German V1 rockets known as “doodlebugs” launched from Holland which had been raining down on London throughout the summer months. My mother had been evacuated to Halifax, 200 miles away in Yorkshire, with her 6-week old son (me!) while London coped with the bombings as pluckily as it could. My father speaks in his correspondence with my mother of sudden explosions as these bombs struck. He would return each evening to their home in Kensington, where the window glass had been shattered by a doodlebug that had hit the high street about half a mile away on the very same day that I was born in late July. Even in early Autumn, he would complain of the cold at night that seeped uninvited through the paneless windows. As he realized, our home was no place at that time for a nursing mother and her baby boy. My mother and I only returned to London in late October, when the rockets had stopped.
I came across the individual letter (part of a much larger correspondence) recording my father’s cousin’s death only a short while ago. I was intrigued to explore both Buddy Friedman and the circumstance that led to his regrettable death. I did recall that, at a Felsenstein family reunion in Jerusalem in the year 2000, kaddish prayers were recited in his memory along with those remembering family members who had perished in the Holocaust, other service members who had been killed during the Second World War, and later in valiant defense of Israel. The passage of 75 years since Buddy passed means that there was nobody in our family to whom I could turn to learn first-hand about him.
A chronicle that was put together at the time of the 2000 reunion provided me with some initial clues. Buddy was the grandson of one of my paternal grandfather’s brothers, thus making him a second cousin to my father. I learned that his actual first name was Melvin – “Buddy” came later and will have been the name he was known by in the army – and he was born in the United States on April 28, 1918, coincidentally, the same day that Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand that sparked the First World War, died. His mother Esther Felsenstein – the family chronicle describes her as “a very vivacious and attractive young woman” – married Abe Friedman, a New Yorker, and the young couple gave birth to three children of whom the oldest was Melvin.
Melvin’s childhood will have been during the interwar years, and I have so far been unable to ascertain his call-up date, though likely after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, when the US joined the war. He would have been in his early 20s at the time he joined the army. In its listing of “The Latest Casualties from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut as Reported by the Army” of September 22 1944, The New York Times gives his rank but succeeds in misspelling his surname when listing among the dead “FREIDMAN, Sgt. MELVIN H.: sister Mrs. Joan N. Friedman. 15 W. 81st St., New York.” It places him among those from New York killed in the “European Area” of the war.
Our family chronicle offers a broad detail of Buddy Friedman’s death. It asserts that he was “killed in action in Omaha Beach, France on D-Day in 1944, and he is buried there.” A present-day website dedicated to the D-Day landings at Omaha recounts that “On June 6th, 1944, the first wave of soldiers had to wade through…water for many yards under heavy fire, before finally reaching the wide beach, having to clear all kinds of obstacles and mines, without any cover to hide behind, before they could run for their lives to make it across, only to find a well prepared German defence force awaiting them. At the end of this day, known as D-Day, an estimate of 2,000 men had lost their lives during the Omaha Beach landing operation (ut.com/d-day-omaha-beach-landing-saint-laurent-sur-mer-normandy-france/).
At the foot of the on-line page that includes remarkable photographs of landmark memorials to the invasion a space is reserved for shared thoughts. Three commentators have added their remarks, and, to my surprise, I found that each is about Buddy Friedman. They are all written by relatives who I assume are from his father’s side of the family and thus not related to me. In the first of these, Barbara H. Smith writes eloquently that “Colleville-sur-Mer, Omaha Beach, and all the beaches, are truly holy grounds, where our BEST and most courageous gave their all, for all of us…My cousin, Melville “Buddy” Friedman, is buried there, having been killed on Omaha Beach on July 6, 1944…I never knew him, but heard that he was a real patriot, as were they all, wherever they are buried…I visited many years ago, said prayers at his gravesite, and was moved to tears by the experience…May the lives of each of these young warriors serve as blessings and inspirations for us, now and always…”
Barbara’s comments elicited responses from Chaim Vachman who added that “I think Buddy was mortally injured on D-Day, and later died from his injuries….Another cousin, Buddy Lipsky, named after him, is living in Israel”; and from Louis Lipsky who appended that “I am…a first cousin of Chaim Vachman…, [and] brother of Buddy Lipsky, whom Chaim mentions. My grandmother, Pearl Koenigsberg (nee Friedman) was first cousin of Abe, Buddy’s father. Our family has stayed in touch with Buddy’s family, primarily his late sister Joan Lavin, and her daughter.” Joan was the sister whose name had appeared on the casualty list published by The New York Times in 1944. She was Buddy’s last surviving sibling, and she was to die in Chicago in 1992.
The fullest accreditation of Buddy’s army service is enshrined within the website of the American Battle Monuments Commission where his unit is listed as the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, and his military honors are given as the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart (https://www.abmc.gov/node/408918). Gravely wounded during the D-Day landings, Sergeant Friedman appears to have struggled to survive, but succumbed to his injuries a month after the invasion. He is buried in the Normandy American Cemetery. At his death, he was 26 years old.
As we have reached the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we should recall the ultimate sacrifice made by Buddy and countless others who belong to what we rightly call the Greatest Generation. If only in our thoughts at home, but also by commemorating their Jahrzeit in synagogue, we should remember these valiant soldiers many of whom, including Buddy, gave their lives for our enduring freedom. To forget their sacrifice is to undermine the meaning of freedom and the democratic ideals which without sufficient thought we too often take for granted.