Bravery delayed, bravery honored

Jim Pritchard speaks at the Medal of Honor dedication ceremony for William Shemin. L-R: Col. Richard Goldenberg, Maj. Bruce Bublick, Elsie Shemin Roth, daughter of William Shemin. 

By Carl Moskowitz

On June 2, 2015, Elsie Shemin Roth and her sister Ina Bass stood in front of many family members as President Barack Obama presented them with the congressional Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to their father, William Shemin, for his bravery in World War I.  

It was the culmination of many years of struggle to get the medal denied to their father initially because he was Jewish. But the story doesn’t end there.

This year, on Sept. 29, Elsie, her sister and about 40 family members gathered at the Baron Hirsch Cemetery in Staten Island, N.Y., to attend the dedication ceremony for the special Medal of Honor headstone at Shemin’s grave. 

It was a privilege and honor for me, my wife, Marcia, our son Steven and his wife Susie to attend this historic event. Also present were an Army color guard and members of local veterans groups from Staten Island and Bayonne, N.J., where Shemin once lived. 

After trooping the colors, Col. Richard Goldenberg of the New York National Guard led the ceremony, and a chaplain from Stewart Air Force base, Air Force Maj. Bruce Bublick, gave the opening invocation and led us in prayer. 

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Shemin was recommended for the medal after the war for repeatedly going into “no man’s land” between the opposing armies’ trenches to rescue wounded American soldiers. Elsie sought to right the wrong of her father being denied the medal because of anti-Semitism when Congress allowed such cases to be reviewed.  

At the ceremony, Elsie and Ina talked about their father and the values he instilled in them and their late brother: intense love of this country and the responsibility to help others. Elsie and Ina were accompanied by more than four generations of family members who came from as far as Missouri and California. 

What a privilege it was to hear the tributes from other family members, as well as from the military. David Frey, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, told about Elsie’s talk with cadets the previous day about anti-Semitism and how important it is that they hear stories like hers.

The most poignant of the tributes was given by Jim Pritchard, the son of one of the three wounded soldiers Shemin rescued. He spoke of the many stories his father told of his time in the service and of the courage Shemin had demonstrated. Pritchard said his father told him he would have died on the battlefield had it not been for Bill Shemin. As a result, Pritchard said, “Neither I nor my children or grandchildren would be alive today had it not been for Bill’s courage and bravery.”   

This was a ceremony we never will forget.

Carl Moskowitz is a retired executive of Monsanto Co./Solutia Inc. and community volunteer.