Israel Begins Honoring Long-Overlooked Jewish WWII Veterans

British Jewish World War II veteran Norman Cohen who landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day with the British 2nd Army as a radio operator under the command of General Miles Dempsey, poses for a photo at his home in Jerusalem on May 19, 2015 .
 (JERUSALEM — May 29, 2015 ) – As a proud patriot, Brooklyn-born Dan Nadel enlisted in the U.S. army right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But there was another force driving him to battle — his Jewish faith.

“What Hitler was doing to the Jews, I knew he had to be killed and stopped,” the 95-year-old decorated veteran said from his home in Jerusalem. “That was my motivation.”

Nadel is among a dwindling population of Jewish war veterans who battled the Nazis — a group that until recently received little recognition in the Jewish state. Seventy years after the war ended, Israel is finally paying homage to the 1.5 million Jewish soldiers with a planned museum and research center.

Nadel became an officer and landed on Normandy shortly after D-Day. He went on to earn five battle stars while leading combat engineer troops in the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of France. Eventually, he helped free his fellow Jews from Nazi concentration camps.

“You can’t imagine what it was like. The stench, people walking around just like skeletons, just bones and skin, that’s all,” he recalled. “It was terrible. Our general, Patton, when he went into the camps, he puked.”

Stories of the death camps are well-known in Nadel’s adopted home of Israel, but the odysseys of Jewish soldiers are less well chronicled. In Israel, World War II history is predominantly focused on the Holocaust and its 6 million Jewish victims. When Jewish heroism from that era is invoked, it typically refers to the rebels who resisted the Nazis in the ghettos or volunteers from the Holy Land who later helped establish Israel.

Earlier this month, both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin attended Israel’s official ceremony marking 70 years since Victory Day in Europe and acknowledged that the contributions of Jewish veterans have often been overlooked. They said financing would be found to complete the construction of the planned museum, which has been bogged down in a bureaucratic stalemate for more than a decade.

“We stand here as representatives of a people who gave their best sons in the battleground. While their brothers were being led to destruction, the Jewish warriors stood on the front lines,” said Rivlin. “Do our children know this? Do our grandchildren know that the Jewish people fought in the killing fields of Europe?”

More than 250,000 Jewish soldiers died in battle. Many were among the first to liberate the Nazi death camps, often comforting the dazed, emaciated prisoners in Yiddish.

Zvi Kan-Tor, a retired Israeli general, has taken on the mission of preserving the memory of these Jewish war veterans, leading the efforts to establish the Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War II in the central Israeli town of Latrun.

A structure is already standing and some exhibitions are ready to be displayed, but the funding isn’t there yet. His hope is that together with private donations and government assistance it can be completed while some of the approximately 5,000 veterans remaining in Israel are still alive.

“World War II in our collective memory has been sealed by a single word: Holocaust,” said Kan-Tor. “We’ve heard about the victimhood — let’s tell this side too… This is the missing piece. Maybe we can finally tell the full story of the Jewish people.”

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