St. Louis Jews served with valor, distinction in the First World War

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

World War I, the “War to End All Wars” (which tragically it was not), was sparked exactly 100 years ago this past weekend by “the shot heard round the world.” On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, were assassinated on a Sarajevo street by a zealous young man who wanted an independent Greater Serbia.

The First World War is often eclipsed by World War II, in which at least 50 million people (some estimates reach as high as 80 million), including six million Jews, would perish, along with more than 400,000 American troops. But the Great War (as it was known until World War II), was itself extremely costly: Almost 16 million died from the war and 21 million were wounded. President Woodrow Wilson, who originally opposed the war, went to Congress and obtained a formal declaration of war against Germany and its allies after Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare against Britain and its allies. Wilson, the intellectually brilliant idealist, wanted the war to “make the world  safe for democracy,” but in fact the results of World War I paved the way for the tragic postwar borders and events leading to World War II.

How was the Jewish community of St. Louis affected by the First World War? St. Louis had (and still has) a substantial German-descended population, which at the time of World War I included a majority of the Jewish community of St. Louis.  German Americans became objects of persecution and xenophobic bigotry, according to local historians. German street names, like “Berlin Avenue,” were changed to Pershing Avenue in honor of a great American World War I general. Lutheran churches, made up largely of German-descended members, began the practice of beginning services with a march down the aisles with an American flag to prove their patriotism.

According to the late author Walter Ehrlich, the St. Louis Jewish community was deeply affected by the events unfolding in Europe even before the United States formally entered the war. Ehrlich notes in his history of the St. Louis Jewish community, “Zion in the Valley, Vol. II,”  that in many of America’s wars, Jews were put on the defensive by anti-Semitic claims that they shirked their military duties to serve their nation. In fact, groups like B’nai B’rith and the Jewish War Veterans of the USA fully documented that in all of America’s wars, Jews participated in combat roles and in World War I and II, those numbers were way out of proportion to Jews’ share of the overall population.

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Ehrlich notes that prominent non-Jews, such as Charles W. Eliot, president emeritus of Harvard University, and Gov. Samuel W. McCall of Massachusetts, cited such things as the above-average number (in relation to percentage of the population) of Jewish volunteers, casualties, and decorations for exceptional valor, as well as splendid civilian efforts on the home front.

“When World War I began in 1914, St. Louis found itself in the same quandary as the rest of the country,” Erhlich writes. “Its people wanted to remain neutral and stay out of the war.  It was only natural, though, that their sympathies lay with the countries of their familial roots. Jews faced a more complex situation, since they had roots in both camps, and their coreligionists in Europe were fighting on both sides…Jews still continued their relief efforts for those trapped in war-torn Europe.  But along with the rest of the nation, Jews gave their utmost support to the war effort:  they fought in the armed forces, bought bonds, worked in war industries, conserved food and raw materials, and did everything else that the general population was asked to do.”

Temples and synagogues in St. Louis welcomed Jewish GI’s to Shabbat dinners, at Passover seders and Hanukkah and Purim festivals, without regard to which “branch” of Judaism to which they belonged.  Reform temples joined the war effort on the “Jewish Day” at the main downtown post office, selling war bonds and stamps.

Ehrlich says there are no firm statistics as to how many St. Louis service people actually saw frontline combat, but there were indeed some heroes among the local Jewish soldiers during World War I.

One of the most remarkable heroes of World War I was Elkan C. Voorsanger, “The Fighting Rabbi,” who resigned as assistant rabbi at Congregation Shaare Emeth when the United States entered the war and enlisted as a private in the Barnes Hospital medical unit.  He was among the first group of 750 Americans to land in France in May 1917.

By a special act of Congress, Voorsanger was commissioned as a chaplain and assigned to be senior chaplain of the 77th Infantry Division, the famed “melting pot” division. During the Argonne battle, he was wounded while in no-man’s land, under withering enemy fire, administering to the needs of American troops. He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds incurred there. Other honors included the French Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Medal, as well as a warm commendation from one of his fellow officers who praised his valor, “forceful personality and military bearing.”

There was also Lt. Jerome L. Goldman, the son of immigrants Morris and Sidonia Goldman, who enlisted as a private and soon qualified for officers’ school. In January 1918, he was shipped out to France and two days after writing an upbeat letter to his parents, was killed on June 12, 1918, while leading an attack on German lines.  His valor was praised in a letter to his parents from a comrade in arms.

Lt. Goldman was buried in an American military cemetery in France.  In 1921 his body was returned to his family in St. Louis, and he was interred in New Mount Sinai Cemetery.  The Jerome L. Goldman Post 96 of the American Legion was named in his honor.

At least 35 St. Louis Jewish servicemen lost their lives in World War I. St. Louis overall lost approximately 1,075 service members during World War I. They paid the ultimate price in defense of their nation and served with valor and distinction.