LOS ANGELES (JTA) — What stands for those who have fallen?
As a small boy, I played with green plastic soldiers. Sometimes after they died in backyard battle, I would mark their passing with a little cross made of twigs.
Even then it seemed off.
This Memorial Day weekend — before you load the car, board the plane or hit the mall — contemplate another trip, one of recognition for those American Jewish men and women who died in the service of their country. Since Jews have served in America’s armed services from the Colonial period up to Afghanistan, there are many possible destinations.
“Thousands of Jews have died in combat for their country,” relates the National Museum of American Jewish Military History Web site, “and thousands more have been wounded.”
Inspired by the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that for now essentially keeps a cross used to memorialize American soldiers who died in World War I on public land in California’s Mojave Desert, I am suggesting a mission to reclaim and re-mark the sacrifice of Jewish men and women in America’s wars.
If as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the plurality opinion, “A Latin Cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs,” perhaps then a Star of David, which is not purely a religious symbol either, is not merely an affirmation of Jewish beliefs.
In lieu of the court’s opinion, perhaps now is the time to redirect communal energies toward building additional war memorials — not with a cross but the Star of David.
Since it now seems acceptable to erect public war memorials using symbols once thought to be purely sectarian, in memory of the Jewish servicemen and servicewomen who have died for their country, it’s time to present a few names and locations where new Star of David memorials could be erected to honor and all others who died in service.
As you will see, the star works as well as the cross, even in the unlikeliest of settings. The marker should be about 7 feet high and made of wood or stone, built with a secure foundation. The Mojave Cross was stolen recently, and I don’t want these new memorials going anywhere, save for perhaps a brief court appearance.
My first nominee for a Star of David memorial is the first Jew to die in the Revolutionary War, Francis Salvador. Salvador, a plantation owner and delegate to two provincial congresses, died in a British-induced skirmish with the Cherokees a few miles from the Keowee River, about 25 miles from his home in Greenwood, S.C.
A memorial to Salvador in downtown Charleston that I saw a few summers ago reads in part: “Commemorating Francis Salvador 1747–1776 First Jew in South Carolina to hold public office And to Die for American Independence”
Perhaps on a bluff overlooking the Keowee River, the Star of David for Salvador and all those died in the Revolutionary War could be erected.
My second nomination for a memorial star goes to William Sawleson, a World War I U.S. Army sergeant who posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The citation for his medal reads: “Hearing a wounded man in a shell hole some distance away calling for water, Sgt. Sawelson, upon his own initiative, left shelter and crawled through heavy machine-gun fire to where the man lay, giving him what water he had in his canteen. He then went back to his own shell hole, obtained more water, and was returning to the wounded man when he was killed by a machine gun bullet.”
Who knew that Congress gave medals for “gemulut chasidim,” acts of loving kindness?
Considering his action, Sawelson’s six-pointed star should definitely stand overlooking a place of water. He was from Newark, N.J., so why not a parcel overlooking the nearby Passaic River, which many environmental groups as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are working to restore?
Casualties of World War II have numerous memorials across the country. I will add another with my third nomination; a new memorial with a Star of David is in order for Gertrude Shapiro, a young Jewish Army nurse who was sent to Hiroshima, Japan, to help care for survivors in September 1945, only a few weeks after the bomb had been dropped.
On her return to the States, Shapiro suffered from a variety of ailments, and according to Hasia R. Diner and Beryl Lieff Benderly in their book “Her Works Praise Her,” she died in 1972 “of a cancer probably caused by her exposure to nuclear radiation.”
To honor Shapiro, as well as other service personnel who died as a result of aiding atomic victims, a two-triangled star should stand in the Little Tokyo section of downtown Los Angeles.
There, in a several-block area of Japanese shops, apartment buildings, cultural center and Buddhist temple, on a bench sits a life-sized bronze statue of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who during his WWII service as vice counsel in Lithuania saved the lives of thousands of Jews by issuing them transit visas. The accompanying plaque quotes from the Talmud: “He who saves one life, saves the entire world.”
Placing the star nearby would complete a circle.
It’s not just playing with symbols.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.)