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Local Jewish Vets Honored at Holocaust Museum

The story of American Jews serving in World War II has come to life via artifacts and recorded memories in a stunning traveling exhibit.

The touring exhibit of “Ours to Fight For: American Jews in the Second World War” - on display at through June 21 – is so compelling museum officials wouldn’t dare alter its layout.

But they were allowed some flexibility.

That’s why the opening of the exhibit has a huge photo – the idea of museum officials to show the sinking battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor around a film of Franklin Roosevelt’s war-declaration speech the next day. And that’s why as spellbound exhibit-goers prepare to leave the exhibit, after examining artifacts ranging from machine guns to a Torah used in the first service at Dachau after its liberation, they come upon a “Wall of Honor” with rotating vintage photos of the Jewish veterans in their service uniform.

The photos, switched off monthly, are arrayed in four rows along the wall. Three complete books of all photos to be used, listed alphabetically, are below the display for inspection.

Local veterans up on the wall include Winnetka's Mort Oman and Richard Feis; Glencoe's Fred Rubenstein, Louis Cohen and Jerome M. Grunes; and Northfield's Robert H. Goldberg, Jerome Podgers and Henry Pohl.

“That was great,” Clarence Burgeman, 86, a 54-year Skokie resident said of the Wall of Honor. He was proud of being displayed along with his brother, now 88, a former Skokie resident now living in Chicago.

Holocaust survivor: ‘Unbelievable’

Veterans weren’t the only ones moved by the exhibit.

Displays on American troops liberating concentration camps in 1945 affected Holocaust survivors who attended the Feb. 19 opening ceremonies.

Unbelievable … unbelievable,” said Cipora Katz, 73, a Polish native, who spent part of the war hiding out in a farm in Poland while most of her family perished in the Treblinka concentration camp.

Both veterans’ and Holocaust survivors’ reactions enabled the exhibit to come to life for museum curator Arielle Weininger.

“I started working with the veterans [and families] last November, which involved submitting photographs of themselves,” she said.  “At the opening, there were probably 25 veterans with their families. It was a wonderful thing. It was so hugely emotional for them. One of the veterans there came up to me to say words can’t explain. All those quotes [displayed], I said those things.”

Weininger was the top impetus for “Ours To Fight For” coming to the museum.

“I saw the exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage [in New York], which created the exhibition in 2004,” she said. “It was never intended to be a traveling exhibition. They were going to have it for a shorter period of time, but the public was so engaged by it that they kept it up until 2007.

“When they dismantled it and tried to put it into storage, the director of Jewish Museum in Maryland found money so it could be displayed there,” Weininger added.

“Ours to Fight For” was the first traveling exhibit Weininger secured after she started her job in April 2010, after it had appeared at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and Houston’s Holocaust Museum.

In addition to the Wall of Honor, the museum added its own artifact to the traveling collection – a set of GI dog tags, marked with the letter H for “Hebrew,” with an attached mezuzah.

Nearby was a book of prayer somewhat shredded by shrapnel, serving as a mini-shield that saved its owner’s life.

The testimony of the veterans is as strong as the physical displays. In addition to serving their country, more than evening the score against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, was another powerful spur to their military experiences.

“I wanted those sons of bitches to know that the bombs that were dropping, there was a Jew up there doing it,” said one Air Force veteran.  Said another: “As a Jew, it was Hitler and me. That’s the way I pictured the war.”

Powerful memories of Dachau liberation

Most shattering part of the exhibit is a mini-theater showing black and white films of the liberation of Dachau with the vocal testimonies of Jewish GI’s that were at the scene.

They told of comrades so enraged by the stygian horror they lined up German guards and summarily shot them.

Other Jewish soldiers desperately tried to comfort the skin-and-bones inmates by talking in German or Yiddish to them, or giving them bits of food.

The Skokie display could be the last stop for “Ours to Fight For.” Weininger said the exhibit is set to end after its run at the museum.

“There’s a certain amount of stress put on the exhibit if it continues to travel,” she said. “You’d have to rebuild it.”

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