FALLEN HEROES: Maine’s Jewish Sailors and Soldier Boys

By Susan Cummings-Lawrence
Click here to learn & see more via a Maine Memory Network online exhibit

It seems almost too good to be true that I am going to take an active part in a big European war.[i] ~ H H Munro “Saki” 1870-1916

Thirty-four young Maine Jewish men died in the service of their country in the two World Wars. This project — including a Maine Memory Network exhibit  is meant to say a little something about some of them. More than just names on a public memorial marker or grave stone, these men were getting started in adult life. They had newly acquired high school and college diplomas. They had friends, families and communities who loved and valued them. They had goals and dreams. (SC-L)

In his introduction to Poetry of the World Wars,[ii] Michael Foss describes differences in the language of the Great War poets from that of their compatriots of World War II. WWI  rage, grief, disgust; WWII despair and futility. How our Fallen Heroes would have expressed their experiences, we probably will never know. We have some photographs and letters that give us hints of who these young men were, but it is impossible to say who they would have become. What memories, what proud stories, what haunted dreams would have informed their ordinary lives? It is tempting to acknowledge, and even indulge in, the horror and despair of these poets and pass over the enthusiasm of others who served. There were many men for whom nothing else in their long lives ever came close to their war experiences. In some cases, that was a curse, and in others a treasure.

Sad to say, the young men whose lives we attempt to glimpse in this project all died very young. Few marriages, very few children and no grandchildren, only budding careers — if any at all  no synagogue presidencies, no survivor’s poems. We have only a handful of letters that offer anything other than news attempting to cheer anxious parents and siblings. There are some, written on government letterhead, that describe the circumstances under which the son or brother was killed, or that detail efforts to relocate their bodies from far away to Maine Jewish cemeteries. Many of the photos show the men before they were old enough to leave on their final journey, or, in uniformed groups, taken from too great a distance, their faces mostly indistinguishable from their pals, leaving descendants to guess at their uncles’ or great grandfathers’ identities. Family stories are scarce.

Approximately forty years before the births of our earliest Fallen Heroes, and sixty years before the entry of the United States into WWI, an organization that became the Jewish War Veterans of the USA was formed. The story of its origin provides some understanding of the socio-political climate  then and now  affecting American Jews and military service. Local Posts were eventually created all over the country, including several in Maine. The story of Portland, Maine’s Jacob Cousins Post #99 does not necessarily help us understand those who were lost, but we can learn something about those who survived, and those who served in the military, both before and after them. Further, the formation of its parent, the national Hebrew Union Veterans, does bring to light an aspect of 19th century anti-Semitism that continues world-wide today.

For centuries, Jews have been regarded around the world as cowardly and disloyal to their countries of residence during and post-war. In the US, after the Civil War and continuing through the 20th century, an attempt to redefine public opinion arose. In History Lessons,[iii] Beth Wenger explores aspects of the self-construction of the new American Jew that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the chapter, “War Stories: Jewish Patriotism on Parade,” she quotes various sources whose authors point out, for example, that Jews coming to the US from Europe had centuries of catastrophes weighing on their new lives,[iv] or perhaps in some cases a particular ardor for revenge against Spain, as motives for their participation in the Spanish-American War of 1898.[v] Moreover, those experiences, and more recent ones endured in European wars, such as attempts by Russia to convert Jews, through conscription, to Russian Orthodoxy,[vi] inspired many to endeavor to create an improved, “more masculine,” loyal Jewish male who would readily serve in his new country’s armed forces. Wenger’s assertion is that while certain aspects of these endeavors surely were defensive, mainly they were part of a broader campaign to construct the new Jewish American.[vii]  As will likely be obvious to anyone who reads the news in 2015, these efforts almost certainly did far more to further the creation of the new American Jewish image than they did to persuade detractors of Jewish loyalty.

Long after the early 20th century immigrant strivings at least to moderate this particular manifestation of anti-Semitism, it persists. The handy thing about a stereotype is that it can be reversed so as to double its utility; besides being condemned as disloyal, Jews have been criticized for being too loyal  to each other. More recently, they are viewed as being too loyal to Israel. This trope has surged world-wide in the past year, subsequent to the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, also known as Operation Protective Edge.

Recently, the online news service, The Intercept, reported on a court ruling regarding US government surveillance of Muslim-Americans; it seems no one is exempt from this particular assigned status of political otherness. “In its ruling, the court (Third Circuit Court of Appeals) took pains to position the mass-surveillance of Muslim-Americans within a broader historical context of misguided suspicion and hostility towards minority communities in the United States. In a strongly worded opinion, the court wrote that, “We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II.” Citing another decision, it added that “we are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight — that ‘loyalty is a matter of the heart and mind, not race, creed, or color.’”[viii]

In an effort to combat such accusations of cowardice, loyalty and disloyalty, in 1896 “a group of Jewish Civil War veterans organized the Hebrew Union Veterans, an organization that was later to become the Jewish War Veterans of the USA (JWV-USA). The organization was founded as a direct result of slander that Jews had not participated in the military during the War Between the States. What concerned Jewish veterans then, and throughout America’s history, concerns Jewish veterans today. Jews must still defend themselves against the canards of anti-Semites who continue to declare that Jews have not served in the US Armed Forces.” [ix]

The JWV-USA, the oldest veterans’ organization in the US, currently has about 37,000 members. Its founding mission stresses the promise that Jews will demonstrate their sincere allegiance and Americanism, among other worthy correctives.

We, citizens of the United States of America, of the Jewish faith, who served in the Wars of the United States of America, in order that we may be of greater service to our country and to one another, associate ourselves together for the following purposes:

To maintain true allegiance to the United States of America; to foster and perpetuate true Americanism; to combat whatever tends to impair the efficiency and permanency of our free institutions; to uphold the fair name of the Jew and fight his or her battles wherever unjustly assailed; to encourage the doctrine of universal liberty, equal rights, and full justice to all men and women; to combat the powers of bigotry and darkness wherever originating and whatever their target; to preserve the spirit of comradeship by mutual helpfulness to comrades and their families; to cooperate with and support existing educational institutions and establish educational institutions, and to foster the education of ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen, and our members in the ideals and principles of Americanism; to instill love of country and flag, and to promote sound minds and bodies in our members and our youth; to preserve the memories and records of patriotic service performed by the men and women of our faith; to honor their memory and shield from neglect the graves of our heroic dead.[x]

In September, 1935, the Jacob Cousins Post #99 of the JWV-USA, named for the first Jew in Portland killed in WWI, was dedicated in a ceremony on the Eastern Promenade, overlooking the islands of Casco Bay. Many dignitaries were present, including state representatives, Portland’s mayor and JWV national officers, as well as 2,000 other people.  The Portland Press Herald reported, “Colonel Mendelsohn, who lost an arm in the Spanish-American War, said that the patriotism is the guiding star of the American Hebrew. ‘In deeds of daring in the World War the Jewish soldier was second to none.’”[xi]

“’Jacob Cousins left a torch for us to carry.’ With these words, Jean Mathis of New York, one of the America’s outstanding World War heroes, epitomized the sentiment expressed by several speakers Sunday afternoon when more than 2,000 persons gathered on the Eastern Promenade esplanade to assist the Jacob Cousins Post, Jewish War Veterans, in the dedication of a memorial boulder. It was presented to David Sivovlos Commander of the Post. “ “‘Jacob Cousins gave his life to make the world safe for democracy and today we want no Nazism, no Fascism, no communism. We want pure Americanism.’” [xii]   Exemplifying American Jews’ desire to overcome doubt in their fellow citizens, Mathis took his final sentence directly from the JWV mission statement.

Cousins is one of five Jewish soldiers to have a veterans’ post named for him. The other posts are the Milton J. Ward Post JWV #484 in Auburn; the Osher-Edelstein JWV Post in Biddeford, in honor of Louis Osherowitz and Albert Edelstein; JWV Post #507 in Bangor; and, the Martin-Klein American Legion Post #133 in Fort Kent, which was named after Jewish soldier Kenneth Klein and Franco-American soldier George F. Martin. These young men were among the first to volunteer and the first two soldiers from the Ft. Kent area to be killed. They were members of Company D of the 103 Infantry and were killed May 10, 1918 on the Meuse Argonne Defensive sector. [xiii]

In Portland, charter members of the Jacob Cousins Post include Abraham Weisman, David Sivovlos, William Perlin, Leo Golodetz, Lewis Abramson, Harry Weinman, Sam Shrensker, Benjamin Troen, Louis Grinker, Manuel Berenson, Maurice Davis, Abraham Venner, Samuel Ross, Philip Gold, Philip Solomon, Abraham Bernstein, Louis Bernstein and Max Rice.[xiv] In May 1936, an auxiliary was formed; Mrs. Maurice Davis was its first president. Among other projects, the group developed an extensive hospital service for veterans at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Kittery and the Marine Hospital in Portland. [xv] Records detailing Post membership numbers over the years are not available from either Jacob Cousins or the National office. Currently, there are a handful of active members; the two other posts have long been decommissioned.

The activities of the Post focused on the Jewish community of the Greater Portland area. At the time the Post was most active, the community as a whole was most active.  Synagogues were full weekly, as well as for holidays and special events. The Jewish Community Center purchased its new building on Cumberland Avenue in 1938 and was buzzing with community and civic enterprises. After years of fundraising and planning by the Young Women’s Hebrew Association, the Jewish Home for Aged, now The Cedars, opened its doors in 1929. Zionist, civic and literary groups proliferated. After 1935, the Cousins Post was an integral part of the Portland Jewish community scene.  There were flag dedications, Memorial Day worship services and sponsorship of community events, such as Yom HaAtzmaut. In May, 1936, the Post sponsored the first memorial service for Jews who served in the Army and Navy. Attorney Jacob H. Berman spoke on behalf of the Post and Rabbi Mendel Lewittes was the officiant.[xvi]

The Post’s records contain a copy of a letter addressed to Esther Gerber, sister of Jacob Cousins, from Commander Solomon Crasnick, of Portland’s Harold T Andrews Post No. 17, American Legion, dated August 10, 1936. The letter describes the award of an engraved saber to Victor Lebednic, “in memory of Jacob Cousins, who gave his life for his country on the field of honor.” Lebednic was the outstanding Citizens Military Training Camp candidate for that year. [xvii]

In 1935, at the well-attended Post dedication on the Eastern Promenade, “State Rep. Udell Bramson, representing Gov. Louis J Brann declared that ‘the memory of this occasion will remain throughout the history of Maine.’” [xviii] This has, of course, proved not to be true. The aim of the Fallen Heroes project is to have us consider, even fleetingly, the men who founded the Jacob Cousins Post, its story, which is almost concluded, and those lost men whose youthful faces look out at us from faded photographs.

At least thirty-four Maine Jewish men were killed on active duty during WWI and WWII. Some were killed on the battlefield, one died of meningitis, one drowned at sea, one teenager was killed by a train while on guard duty, one or two died later of wounds. All of them were serving their country, regardless of the manner of death. It is good to remember that two thirds of the 750,000[xix] Civil War deaths were the result of disease.[xx] We have accepted in recent years that soldiers who kill themselves, either on duty or later in life, related to the trauma of their service, should also be considered fatalities. Many who served in the Vietnam era conflict have been dying for decades of illnesses associated with exposure to toxic herbicides, such as Agent Orange, that had been deployed as weapons.[xxi]  We know that chlorine, phosgene and mustard gasses caused illness and deaths not only on the battlefield; deaths occurred among both former soldiers and home front chemical workers after WWI. [xxii] And, of course, countless tales about some doomed soul with “shell shock” in books, films and hushed family whispers are woven throughout the history of US wars and conflicts. But we do not know how Maine Jewish soldiers were affected in these ways and so those stories will not appear.

In the instance of Jacob Cousins, as with many others of the thirty-four, descendants, personal stories, documents and photographs are “lost.” The Portland Press Herald article from 1935 cited above includes a number of photographs of the dedication event and of Cousins, but the original glass plate or other negatives cannot be traced. A portrait of Jacob is depicted on the memorial stone placed on Portland’s Eastern Promenade, and his military photo can be seen in the news article, so at least we know what he looked like. But no photos of Jacob Cousins are included in the Fallen Heroes exhibit. The same is true with Louis Osherowitz and Albert Edelstein. After their deaths they were important enough to have been memorialized in their communities by having a JWV Post named for them.  Unfortunately, images of them cannot be found and no other information was available.

From Ft. Kent and Van Buren to York County, and from the coast to the White Mountains, young Jewish men served in WWI and WWII. Nationally, 250,000 Jewish men enlisted in WWI. Although Jews were only 3% of the American population, they represented 5% of all those in the armed forces. [xxiii] During WWII, over 500,000 American Jews served.[xxiv] We know that Maine gave its share of Jewish soldiers; among our thirty-four casualties are two sets of brothers: the Solomon’s, Frank and Charles  David served and survived  and the Klein’s, Samuel and Kenneth, twins, who are buried together in a Bangor cemetery. Norway high school student, Peter Klain, was one of seven siblings, out of eleven, who served in WWI. Sam Citrin was an attorney, newly married, and stationed a mere five miles from his Portland home when he died. Another was graduated from Harvard, attended Harvard Business School, worked in his family business briefly and then enlisted.

Although these men left few mementoes of their too brief lives and of the contributions to their wars, that is all the more reason we think they deserve a memorial that is more than a name engraved on a stone. We want the general community to be made aware of  and given an additional opportunity to pay their respects to  these young men and their place in the history of both the United States and Maine.

“…My friend you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)


[i] Cross, T. 1988. An International Anthology of Writers, Poets & Playwrights: The Lost Voices of World War I. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.
[ii] Foss, M. Ed., 1990. Poetry of the World Wars. Peter Bedrick Books, New York.
[iii] Wenger, B. 2010. History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage. Princeton University Press.
[iv] Ibid. p. 98
[v] Ibid. pp. 100-103
[vi] Ibid. p. 97
[vii] Ibid. p. 96
[viii] Hussein, M. The Intercept. October 13, 2015.
[ix] http://www.jwv.org  Jewish War Veterans of the USA website.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Portland Press Herald. Portland, Maine. 1935.
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] http://www.americanlegionpost133.org
[xiv] Band, B. 1955.  Portland Jewry: Its Growth and Development. Portland, ME: Jewish Historical Society. p. 58.
[xv] Ibid., p. 56
[xvi] Lewiston Evening Journal, Lewiston, Maine. May 18, 1936.
[xvii] https://research.archives.gov/id/542449 of the National Archives for more information about the Citizens Military Training Camp and many interesting photographs.
[xviii] Portland Press Herald. op cit. 1935.
[xix] Gugliotta, G.  4-2-2012. New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll. New York Times.
[xx] Burns, R. 2012. Death and the Civil War. PBS American Experience.
[xxi]  http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange/conditions/  The Veterans Administration website lists 14 classes of presumptive diseases believed to be linked to Agent Orange and other herbicides.
[xxii] Fitzgerald, G. 2008. Chemical Warfare and Medical Response during World War I. Am J Public Health.  98(4): 611-625
[xxiii] Fredman and Falk. Jews in American Wars.  p.78. In Wenger.
[xxiv] Bureau of War Records of the Jewish Welfare Board. American Jews in World War II: The Story of 550,000 Fighters for Freedom. New York: Dial Press, 1947. In Wenger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s