Intimate history at Jewish military museum

July 1, 2011

This is the second in a series of weekly guides to museums you may not have discovered.

When it comes to war, sacrifice can be made impersonal by statistics. We forget that behind the numbers we know by heart — 6 million comes most readily to mind — are individuals; that the significance ought to be amplified, not diluted, when we think of something as big as a battlefield.

The National Museum of American Jewish Military History, the only museum dedicated to Jews in the U.S. military, manages to take something as large as the history of Jewish participation in wars of the United States and keep the focus on relatable, intimate stories. While the museum’s mission is to maintain a public record of all Jewish Americans’ military service, it stays zeroed in on the people who often get swallowed by the grand scope of history. Here are a few of the Jewish men and women featured in the museum:

Rebel: Irene Wirtschafter’s mother, Ethel, was “mortified” that her daughter would enlist in the armed forces. Despite her mother’s wishes, Irene joined the Navy during World War II and rose to the rank of captain, becoming the first Jewish woman to attain that rank in the U.S. military. After retiring from service, Irene lived in Georgetown for more than 30 years. She died in 2007 and was buried at Arlington Cemetery with full military honors.

The Great Emancipator: When Morris Eisenstein’s unit took part in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, a child he saved wanted desperately to thank him. The boy had nothing to give but the Star of David he’d been forced to wear, with “Jude” scripted on it in thick, black print. Eisenstein saved the star, nearly blackened by dirt. It is on display at the museum.

Playing doctor: Nurse Frances Slanger was killed by artillery shrapnel when her field hospital came under attack in October 1944. Her death came only days after she’d composed a letter to Stars and Stripes, the newspaper for GIs. Stars and Stripes ran her note on the front page, unaware that Slanger had already died. “I’m writing this by flashlight,” Slanger wrote. “The G.I.s say we rough it, but we in our little tent can’t see it. We wade ankle deep in mud.” Of the soldiers she nursed back to health — or, at the very least, consciousness — she said: “Usually they kid, hurt as they are. It doesn’t amaze us to hear one of them say, ‘How’ya, babe,’ or ‘Holy Mackerel, an American woman!’ or most indiscreetly, ‘How about a kiss?’ ”

Rough estimate: Simon Wolf’s 1895 directory of Jewish American Civil War soldiers, “The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen,” is still used as a database today. Wolf, however, had no real method for determining which soldiers were Jewish other than assuming everyone with a Jewish-sounding name was, in fact, a Jew. While Wolf wrote in the book that “The enlistment of Jewish soldiers, North and South, reached proportions considerably in excess of their ratio in the general population,” there is no certainty as to just how accurate his numbers actually are.

National Museum of American Jewish Military History

is at 1811 R St. NW, 202-265-6280. It is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. -5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 -5 p.m. Free. www.nmajmh.org

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