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“H” for Hebrew: The Jewish American Serviceman in World War II

Sun, December 16, 12:30 to 2:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Backbay 1 Complex

Abstract

My paper examines the lives of Jewish American servicemen during World War II, focusing on those held prisoners of war in Nazi occupied Europe. While not every Jewish American prisoner of war faced explicit anti-Semitism or maltreatment at the hands of German guards or their fellow inmates, examination of the words and descriptions former prisoners of war used reveals the commonality of fear. The fear of capture and the precarious position they were in because of their religion (although many were non-practicing) and the “H” for Hebrew stamped on their dog tags. For Jewish American servicemen, fear did not necessarily subside even when there was no actual, immediate threat to their lives. A perceived threat lingered as they not only dealt with the same concerns faced by every prisoner but continued to live with a heightened sense of anxiety as Jews under Nazi control.

Although the majority of Jewish American prisoners of war survived their internment, they experienced a pattern of general mistreatment, abuse, malnutrition, and in extreme cases forced labor with concentration camp inmates. When they returned home, they quickly realized that few wanted to know their stories and thus for many years they remained largely silent. Their experiences serve as a testament to the anti-Semitism and discrimination on the part of their captors and the United States. This paper is largely based on prisoner of war testimony, diaries, interviews, and memoirs from the Library of Congress Veterans’ History Project, the National Archives War Crimes records, Center for Jewish History collections, and Florida State University’s Institute on World War II and the Human Experience collections.

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