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Operation Benjamin: Reclaiming the heritage of Jewish US soldiers killed in WWII

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The gravestone of Pvt. Allan C. Franken, a Jewish soldier killed in the Philippines in the final months of World War II, was changed to a Star of David in a ceremony at the Manila American Cemetery.

The words of a centuries-old prayer rose in the balmy air and echoed over the graves, hypnotic in the rhythms of ancient Aramaic but no less weighty in translation:

"Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world."

The kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, had rarely if ever been spoken at this vast American military cemetery in southern Manila, the final resting place of 17,058 U.S. soldiers from the Second World War.

Atop a quiet plateau, the names of young service members who lost their lives in the Philippines and South Pacific, oft-forgotten battlefields of the deadliest conflict in history, are etched on row upon row of identical white marble gravestones — nearly all in the shape of the Latin cross, the symbol of Christianity.

But not all the Americans laid to rest here are Christians.

At least five Jewish soldiers were buried under a cross when they were entitled to a Star of David on their gravestones. Many of their relatives, living halfway around the world, had no idea. The U.S. military blames clerical errors, miscommunication with families or incorrect information in the records of the soldiers, some of whom may have concealed their faith.

The mistakes stood for decades — until a group of Jewish scholars and researchers launched a project to correct the record at U.S. military cemeteries around the world. In solemn ceremonies, five crosses in Manila were lifted from the emerald lawns and replaced with Jewish stars.

On them were inscribed the names of 1st Lt. Robert S. Fink of New York; Pvt. Allan C. Franken of Hartford, Conn.; Sgt. Jack Gilbert of New York; Pvt. Arthur Waldman of Detroit and Pvt. Louis Wolf of Philadelphia.

"Anyone visiting these cemeteries should recognize that Jews have been part and parcel of America, have been committed to America, have loved America, have volunteered to fight for America — and have made the ultimate sacrifice for America," said Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, a historian at Yeshiva University in New York and co-founder of the project, Operation Benjamin.

For soldiers buried in a distant land who never received a memorial service — certainly never a Jewish one — the ceremony restored a connection to their faith that had been lost to history. The star is the physical affirmation, the kaddish the spiritual one.

Through meticulous genealogical research, Schacter and his colleagues have succeeded in changing the grave markers of 11 Jewish soldiers buried under crosses, and believe there are hundreds more.

The project originated in June 2014, around the 70th anniversary of the D-day landing, when Schacter stood in the heavy stillness of the American cemetery at Normandy, France.

The site held personal significance: His father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, had served in the war as a chaplain alongside the Army soldiers who liberated Buchenwald, then spent several months tending to survivors of the Nazi concentration camp.

The symmetry of Normandy is designed to overwhelm: more than 9,380 white grave markers stretching in every direction on a bluff above Omaha Beach. Staring down one row, Schacter saw the sharp right angles of the Latin crosses interrupted, here and there, by a smattering of Stars of David.

"It slowly dawned on me that there should be more Jewish stars than there were," Schacter said. "I just had this kind of a feeling."

Back in New York, he shared this observation with Shalom Lamm, an entrepreneur and military historian. The official database of Normandy burials didn't list soldiers' faiths, so Lamm — a self-described obsessive on such matters — started combing through online photographs of the cemetery.

About 550,000 Jewish Americans fought in World War II, making up 3.4% of the 16 million Americans who served — roughly equal to the Jewish share of the U.S. population at the time. That meant there should have been about 330 Jewish grave markers at Normandy.

Lamm counted only 149. And he found many seemingly Jewish names carved onto crosses.

"I was consumed by a sadness," Lamm recalled. "I said, 'Wow, is that a mistake?' And I wondered how such a mistake could happen."

The short answer, it turned out, was that gravestone errors were common.

Middle initials, spellings, even dates of death were sometimes recorded incorrectly by military personnel tasked with gathering the bodies of more than 400,000 dead Americans.

"Clerical errors always happen," said Rob Dalessandro, deputy secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, the federal agency that oversees the 56 U.S. military cemeteries and memorials abroad. Even today, the agency receives about two dozen requests for changes to gravestones every year.

There were added complications for Jewish burials. Some Jews who fought in Europe discarded the dog tags that included their religious affiliation — or scratched out the "H," code for Hebrew — in case they were captured by Nazis. When a Jewish soldier perished, the Army's efforts to communicate with relatives, many of them recent immigrants, were sometimes stymied by language barriers.

If religion couldn't be determined, the military "would sort of default to a Latin cross" for burial, Dalessandro said.

Lamm and Schacter knew none of this when they began investigating their first Normandy burial: Benjamin B. Garadetsky, an Army private from the Bronx who was laid to rest under a cross, but whose name suggested he was Jewish.

They found him listed in the records of the National Jewish Welfare Board, a wartime assistance organization. That led to his parents' grave sites, at a Jewish cemetery on Long Island.

Still, to change a gravestone, the monuments commission requires a request from a living relative. Garadetsky was unmarried and had no children. His sister had changed her name at marriage and was untraceable.

Like looking for a ghost, Lamm thought.

It wasn't until they took out an ad in a Jewish newspaper that they tracked down a nephew in St. Louis. Backed by Lamm and Schacter's research, the family filed a request with the commission, which acknowledged the error and, in 2018 replaced the cross with a star.

Operation Benjamin, named for Garadetsky, has succeeded in every marker change it has asked for.  

"The quality of their research is so good, I just really admire them," Dalessandro said. "Our sacred duty is to curate the resting places of our fallen overseas … and any time we can correct an error like this, it really means something to us."

Operation Benjamin remains nonprofit and volunteer-driven, the only paid staff member a professional genealogist. The group decides which burials to investigate, conducts research independently and takes no money from soldiers' relatives — who are usually surprised to be contacted.

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