Remembering a local Jewish ‘Great War’ veteran

Family photos of U.S. veteran William Rothman’s World War I service.

By Merrick Felder

Editor’s note: Commentary writer Merrick Felder is the grandson of World War I veteran William Rothman (1890-1988). Items from Rothman’s time in the service are included in the exhibition, “Untold Sacrifices: The St. Louis Jewish Community in the Great War,” which is on display through Dec. 31 at the fitness and wellness building of the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Family Complex. 

Some of my earliest memories are of camping at Meramec State Park in an old brown tent. It had rusty poles and was heavy to set up. It also leaked when it rained. Much later I learned the tent was our Grandpa Willie’s surplus tent from World War I, and that he and his wife Annie had given my parents the camping bug.

A gas mask in our basement was much in demand among my siblings at Halloween, because it made for a great costume. It turned out this was another relic of the “Great War.”

I remember visiting Grandpa Willie’s lunch counter downtown, shortly before he retired. He would tell my siblings and me stories of his many business ventures. When he and his father first came to America and worked in a pants factory, then started a business mending used burlap bags for sale. Later, he owned penny sunflower-seed machines — the first in St. Louis — which he placed outside grocery stores, and taught my sister Madeleine how to count pennies 2-by-2 when she was a toddler.  After that he owned a candy store on Easton Avenue (now Martin Luther King Drive) and a car wash in Maplewood. 

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My older siblings said what impressed them most was that he always treated his employees with respect and good humor. He taught some of his workers — many of whom were black — Yiddish, and they shared their own inside jokes.     

William Rothman always took many photos — boxes worth — and he showed me a map he drew from his memories of his hometown of Tulchin, a shtetl in Poland (now part of Ukraine), complete with the market, synagogues, favorite childhood play places and the lake where he nearly drowned. From these I learned of his parents and grandparents, and how he and his father Shia (Sam) left the old country in 1907, when Willie was 16 and his name was still Wolf Roitelman. He also wrote an autobiography, dictating stories to my mother Eunice and my sister Madeleine. There were plenty of stories to tell.

He could blow the shofar through practically anything, even a rifle. He said that trick had gotten him into trouble as a mischievous little boy when he broke into the shul to practice blowing it. His flair for music came in handy, though, many years later in the Army, as he took up the saxophone and played in the Army band. His old sax remains as yet another family icon.

During World War I a deferment was available for married men, and Willie had just become engaged to Anne Blustein. But like many others he chose to do his patriotic duty first and was inducted into the Army in May 1918. 

His troop ship landed at Brest, France, and his L Company was stationed nearby for further training. He told us that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur occurred during the time they marched to the front, and Willie and a friend were able to get passes to pray in the woods using Army prayer books. His company spent three weeks on a hill their division had taken, at first delivering supplies to their sister M Company, frequently under fire, then moving to those same trenches to guard the hill. Not long after, the bombardments thankfully ebbed and the armistice was announced.

Willie wrote that for a time afterward his company stayed in bombed-out local homes, returning home in June 1919.  He married Annie soon after and they shared many happy years together. Willie was a longtime proud and active member of the Jewish War Veterans and Annie served in the auxiliary. He lived to age 97, but a few years before his passing he gave a lecture, in his 1919 uniform, to younger members about his war experiences and his extraordinary life. Needless to say, he had lots of pictures to share.

Willie told all his stories for a reason. From his commitment and dedication to serving in WW I, his long and active involvement in the Jewish War Veterans, the wide range of small businesses he worked in and operated over his lifetime — which, though they never made him wealthy, represented his creativity, innovation and drive to succeed — his “can do” attitude in all his professional and personal activities, and his dedication to Israel, especially supporting from afar his dear nephew who survived the Holocaust and created a life in Israel, he embodied the lessons he taught of commitment to family, to fellow man, and to country.