The ceremony, called "The Finest Hour: World War II and the Jews Who Fought It," was sponsored by Gratz College and held at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. The keynoter was Bonnie Gurewitsch, curator and archivist at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Lower Manhattan.
Gurewitsch talked about anti-Semitism in the United States, and how the challenges of military service gave Jews a chance to prove themselves to other soldiers.
"They lived in close quarters, suffered grueling physical training, challenging social issues – and discovered how much they really had in common," relayed Gurewitsch to approximately 1,000 people gathered in the K.I. sanctuary.
"By the time they were in combat," she continued," anti-Semitism was usually not a factor anymore."
On the Same Side
Gurewitsch then quoted Marty Silverman, who said of his fellow soldiers, " 'All they wanted to know is that you're wearing the same colored suit, and you're firing in the same direction, and you're in the foxhole next to me.' "
If some American Jews were unsure what they were fighting for during the early stages of the war, she said, they realized it when they reached the concentration camps.
Attested Gurewitsch: "Jewish survivors – convinced that they were the last Jews left on Earth – were stunned to realize that some of their liberators were Jews."
Though the liberators clearly needed to attend to the physical needs of the ailing and often dying survivors, they also saw to spiritual needs.
As an example, Gurewitsch explained that chaplains "understood immediately that although their physical needs were being addressed, the Jewish survivors of Dachau had another pressing need: They needed to say Kaddish. They needed to mourn their losses as Jews."
The lights were dimmed as Gurewitsch then played a black-and-white video clip showing one chaplain, David Max Eichhorn, standing with a Torah at Dachau. In the footage, he led a group of Holocaust survivors in a prayer service; when Eichhorn's deep voice broke into the Shema, live audience members sang along.
While Gov. Ed Rendell was invited to the event, he instead sent a letter honoring the American Jewish World War II veterans in attendance, stating that the world owes them an immeasurable debt for their ability to sacrifice their safety in their victory over the Axis powers.
One former soldier at the event, William Eilberg, served as a private first class in the U.S. Army. Now 84, Eilberg, said that he was pleased that Gratz decided to pay homage to hundreds of veterans.
"It's a terrific honor. I'm glad to be here at my age – I made it," he said after the event. "Thank God they didn't wait any longer to do this."