Opinion

D-Day was the beginning of American Jews’ ‘coming of age’

American reinforcements arrive on the beaches of Normandy from a Coast Guard landing barge into the surf on the French coast on June 23, 1944, during World War II. (AP Photo/U.S. COAST GUARD)

(RNS) — On June 6, the world will commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of the French Normandy coast that turned the tide of World War II. D-Day was “the beginning of the end” of Hitler’s “Thousand Year” Nazi Reich because it created the second front that German generals had dreaded: Fighting the Soviet Union in the East and the Western Allies in the West, the generals had warned their demonic Führer, was certain to end in a catastrophic defeat for the Fatherland.

That day I was a youngster growing up in Alexandria, Va., a few miles from our nation’s capital. My father, a U.S. Army major, was stationed at Fort Belvoir on the Potomac River, and our family spent almost every Sunday at Mackenzie Hall, the fort’s Officers Club, enjoying the superb food, shooting billiards or swimming.

While we ate and played, other Jewish children of my generation were trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe. Their terrifying existence included brutal arrests, transports to German death camps in filthy crowded railroad boxcars, grisly medical experiments, wretched ghettos, widespread disease. For many of these young Jews, deliverance would only come with death by poison gas, starvation or bullets. It is estimated 1.5 million Jewish children were killed during the Holocaust.

I am forever haunted by the knowledge that had I been born during the 1930s in Transylvania instead of Pennsylvania, I would have been one of the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

In early 1942, before D-Day brightened the prospects for the Allies, my parents soberly told my older brother, Bert, and me that the United States could lose the war and the Nazis might occupy Washington, D.C., and Alexandria. Describing this grim possibility, my father said that as an American Army officer he would stay with my mother and fight the German invaders. But as Jewish youngsters Bert and I would be marked for certain death. It would be our task to escape from Alexandria and “head to Colorado.”

My father never explained how his two sons would get to the Rocky Mountains, nor why the Germans or perhaps the Japanese would not conquer Colorado. That ominous conversation has never left me.

We were of course saved that fate. In November of that year, the British won a crucial victory at El Alamein in Egypt, which was followed within a month by the successful American landing in North Africa, and the Russian triumph at Stalingrad in early February 1943. And, of course, D-Day in 1944.

My brother and I kept track of the war’s progress on large flat maps of the world. Each day we would move our colored pins to indicate the locations of both the Allies’ advances and their increasingly few retreats. We were thrilled to place our pins on France’s coast for the first time on the morning of June 6, 1944.

I still visualize the men and women in uniform on Alexandria’s streets, on buses (there was no Washington Metro system until the 1970s), in movie theaters, cars, restaurants, libraries, shops and stores … uniforms, uniforms everywhere all the time.

Nearly every male in our family above the age of 18 was in the military, serving in such places as Iwo Jima, Kasserine Pass in Tunisia (one of my uncles was wounded there in the February 1943 battle with the German SS forces), Iceland, France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. Our family was not unique; millions of other American families had similar stories. Happily, all my many uncles and cousins survived the war.

Historians estimate that 600,000 American Jews served in the American military during World War II, and that giant collective experience marked the “coming of age” for the American Jewish community.

When Jewish men and women returned to civilian life in 1945, they no longer perceived themselves as members of a vulnerable minority group, but rather as part of a proud, self-confident community. In the years after the war, American Jews were sure-footed in their strong public support of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and more than willing to assume a major leadership role in reminding the world of the horrors of anti-Semitism and the mass murders of the Holocaust.

Today, the American Jewish community is once again being called upon to forcefully combat virulent anti-Semitism. Only this time, the enemy does not wear a Nazi uniform, nor is the enemy far away in Berlin or Auschwitz. Instead, the murderous foe, like a malignant cancer, lives within our society and body politic: in Charlottesville, in Pittsburgh, in Poway, in Kansas City … all scenes of American homegrown anti-Jewish violence.

American Jews today face another D-Day even as our parents and grandparents successfully faced theirs 75 years ago. They and their allies were victorious in the struggle against a murdering anti-Semitic adversary, and I am confident our generation, fully aware of the danger, will also be victorious in the ongoing battle with deadly radical evil.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.” He can be reached at jamesrudin.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

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