Hundreds of Jewish American soldiers were buried under crosses. This group is trying to fix that
Operation Benjamin is replacing the headstones with Stars of David, one family at a time
Earlier this year, on a spring day in France, Barbara Belmont was finally able to honour her late father — a man she never knew.
Belmont, 80, was just three years old when her father, Pvt. Albert Belmont, was killed in the Second World War. Her mother remarried soon after, and her stepfather adopted her and her siblings.
"As with many families from World War II, and I guess other previous wars, they tend not to talk about a family member that is killed in war because it's too painful," the Alexandria, Va., woman told As It Happens guest host David Gray. "We were not allowed to discuss our father."
Only as an adult did she realize what hole this left in her heart. She'd never had a chance to mourn.
But in April, at the Lorraine American Cemetery in Saint-Avold, France, she was finally able to pay her respects. With her daughters by her side, she cried over her father's grave as the cross on his headstone was replaced with a Star of David.
The rededication ceremony was courtesy of Operation Benjamin, a U.S. non-profit that identifies Jewish American soldiers who were given Christian burials — then works to honour their true Jewish heritage.
"It was so important to me on the two levels, because I would like to have some closure, and also because I wanted my daughters to feel a connection to my real father," she said.
'Where did all the Jews go?'
Operation Benjamin estimates there are more than 500 Jewish American soldiers who were mistakenly buried as Christians with crosses as their headstones.
Shalom Lamm, the group's CEO, says these errors were sometimes part of the fog of war. Young men died in breathtaking numbers, and their remains were often reburied several times before they ended up in their final resting places.
But more often than not, he said, it was the soldiers themselves who hid their identities, putting P for Protestant or C for Catholic on their dog tags.
"Most often, it was a Jewish soldier having the good sense to say: 'If I'm captured by the Germans and I'm identified with an H on my dog tag, which stands for Hebrew, that's probably a really bad thing," Lamm said.
"And that hunch turned out to be true. Very sadly, we know historically it's a fact [that] Jewish [prisoners of war] were often separated from the U.S. comrades, and many were sent to the Berga concentration camp, where many of them were worked to death or executed."
Lamm first became aware of the problem when he had a conversation with a friend, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, who had just returned from a tour of the Normandy American Cemetery in France in 2014.
Schacter saw a sea of white crosses, but only a handful of Stars of David. This didn't sit right with him, Lamm said.
After all, he says 2.7 per cent of U.S. Second World War casualties were Jewish. That means that more than 250 of the 9,500 American soldiers buried in Normandy would likely have been Jewish. But there were only about half as many Jewish headstones.
"So it was a simple question: Where did all the Jews go?" Lamm said.
The duo decided to investigate. Not knowing where to begin, they started with a Christian headstone that bore a Jewish sounding name — Benjamin Garadetsky
"It's almost embarrassing to say, because it's so amateurish. But what did we know?" Lamm said.
But their hunch proved correct. Garadetsky was, indeed, Jewish. They spent several years tracking down his living relatives.
In 2018, Garadetsky's grave was rededicated with a Star of David, and Operation Benjamin was born. Since then, Lamm says the group has rededicated 19 headstones, and has 27 more under review.
"Our goal is to do this for these young men and give them the recognition in death that they were denied, and then disappear into night, job done," Lamm said.
"We don't accept money from the families of these heroes. There's no financial goal here. We don't want anything from the families. We want to introduce them to their relatives."
Getting to know Albert Belmont
Many of the family members Lamm speaks to know very little about their relatives who died in battle, Lamm says.
Barbara Belmont says she didn't even see a photograph of her father until she was about 13 or 14. Her older sister had kept one hidden. Then, in her senior year of high school, she had a conversation with her paternal grandmother.
"She told me that he was a wonderful man. He was very generous. He gave to many causes. He was a successful businessman," she said. "Without hesitation, he would give it to family, to friends, whatever. And that was the first I really knew about him," she said.
She learned a little bit more about him as an adult from her uncle Nathan. He told her that his brother had donated money to help build a Jewish community centre in his hometown of Syracuse, N.Y. That was the first inkling she got that her father's Jewish identity was meaningful to him.
"He said to me that his greatest wish would be that my father's headstone could be a Star of David and not a Latin cross," Belmont said. "I would have done just about anything for my Uncle Nathan, but I certainly didn't know how I was going to do that."
Years passed, but her uncle's wish was always in the back of her mind. So she was thrilled when Operation Benjamin reached out.
Finally, she says, she had an opportunity to do something to honour her father's sacrifice and feel some closure.
"I felt very strongly that the Jewish religion meant something to him, and so that is why I felt so good about knowing that I could do this," she said.
"I did it not only for his younger brother and my uncle, Nate, but I did it for myself. But I did it mostly for my father."
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Barbara Belmont produced by Leslie Amminson.
- An earlier version of this story misquotes Shalom Lamm as saying that many Jewish prisoners of war were "burned to death" at the Berga concentration camp. In fact, he said they were "worked to death."May 27, 2022 12:14 PM ET