Kollel Milhamta Shel Torah of Queens A Spiritual Home for Torah and Tefillah

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VICTORY IN OUR MIDST: MEMORIES OF WAR AND PEACE, HERE AND ABROAD

By: Sophia Franco



On December 8, 1941, the day after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan. Following the U.S. declaration, Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States, bringing us fully into World War II. Here in our little enclave of Brooklyn, we are usually shielded from such horrors, but this time, many of our community boys found themselves right in the thick of it. Some lucky ones stayed behind, but many served, some were injured in combat, and a handful
of unfortunate souls lost their lives in the battle. For everyone, the fear was constant.

Here at home, the summer of 1942 brought panic and anxiety along with hundreds of draft notices at our doors. Life had changed drastically because of the war. Young Syrian girls watched in horror as many of their husbands and fiancés suited up, shipping off to Gd knows where. As always though, they found strength when things got tough. Smart, talented, and patriotic, they found a way to be proactive.

The Girls Junior League of Bensonhurst was just two years old when war broke out. By 1942 it had grown from a small group of young girls whose original purpose was social and cultural, to a large and
well-knit club devoted to civilian defense, charity work, and excellent social programs. They created a monthly newspaper optimistically entitled “The Victory Bulletin.” Originally intended for the soldiers, the bulletin was soon expanded to the role of community newspaper and was mailed out here and abroad to every family they knew. Recently, thanks to the Sephardic Heritage Foundation, we cameacross some back issues.

The tone of the Bulletin was clever, witty, upbeat, and informative. Reading through old copies so many years later one cannot help but smile. There was a “Roll of Honor,” listing ranks and awards given to the soldiers, and “Boys on Leave,” announcing who was on furlough at present. “Looking at the World,” communicated current events, and news and letters from the front were included in, “From the Soldiers.”

What’s so impressive about the whole project was its constant call to action. Not only did they help raise money and awareness for the war effort, they also included the addresses of every soldier out there. “What are you doing that’s more important than boosting a soldier’s morale?” the editors asked. Even the soldiers took advantage, beginning a chain of correspondence amongst themselves, thanks to the information provided. One soldier wrote, “The war has moved the SY’s all over the world and I think the Victory Bulletin is the only one that can locate them – besides the War Department!”

Do Your Part!

From the first Bulletin, July 1942: “First and foremost we of the staff pledge ourselves to work for victory; victory of the war and victory of the peace that follows. We will encourage the sale of war bonds, the enrollment of volunteers in civilian defense and army welfare work, and we will try to help everyone to acquire a better understanding of this world struggle.”

“There are many community projects and reforms which have long been forthcoming. We’ll work for them too. We’ll work for a Community Center, and no matter the cost or how long and strenuous the effort, someday we’ll build it. Gambling and all other recognized and unrecognized social evils will be discussed and attacked, too. Lofty and difficult to realize as our aims might seem, they can be achieved, every one of them, if you pitch in and cooperate. This newspaper, though published by the Girl’s Junior League, will be the community’s paper and is to be used as a weapon in the betterment of the community.”

Private Robert Molko, from San Diego, California wrote: “Talk about morale, your first edition has done more for my morale than a three-day pass could do (and believe me those three-day
passes are hard to get!). To think we are capable of putting out so fine a monthly! Please convey my thanks to your reportorial staff and I hope the people back home support them and encourage them to publishing bigger and better editions!”

As months passed, a war committee was started to drum up maximum support from our community, keeping us fully involved. The Junior League raised money for the American Red Cross, the Hebrew Aid Society, American Women’s Voluntary Services, and numerous courses related to civilian defense. There were drives to donate blood and books and to buy war bonds and stamps. All events were advertised in the Bulletin.

Letters from the Soldiers

Private Abe Abadi was able to find humor
overseas. “Can you imagine? MP Raymond Sultan single-handedly breaking up a riot… Private ‘Doc’ Ashear as a paratrooper... Joe Tobias as a jeep chauffeur to a major... Lee Shalom as strategist on General MacArthur’s staff, and ‘yours truly’ as a bombardier on a Flying Fortress…”

Private Ralph Anzaroot wrote from England, “About 18 days after I left New York I was in a fox hole deep inside Germany, the greenest replacement of the 18th regiment of the Fighting First Infantry Division. Over my objections I was told to go to it and give the ‘Jerries’ hell. It happened that it was I who got hell, not the enemy. In a few weeks I was evacuated for bullet wounds and trench foot, but it was the trench foot that got me to a hospital in England for four months. I was released from the hospital, and as luck would have it, I got a gig in the Air Corps. There are actually quite a lot of SY families living in Manchester, and we are frequent guests at their homes. I spent a few days of the past holiday with the Alaires and enjoyed a good old-fashioned meal.
I am grateful.”

Raymond Harari, who still resides in Panama, recalls, “We had a lot of army personnel in our community here defending the Panama Canal. We had a special rabbi from the U.S. Army, and hosted dinners for the boys. They were scared, far from family, and anxious for news from Brooklyn. We received The Victory Bulletin once a month and shared it with them. They were happy to have updates and a few laughs.”

Other Stories
from the Front Lines

The Bulletin tells Jack D’Jemal’s story. He was taken captive September 30, 1944. “Jack was inducted into the Air Corps in July, 1943. Things were going smoothly until one day while flying over Munich, anti-aircraft flak brought his ‘chute down. The whole crew jumped and parachuted safely to Earth, but after five minutes Jack was captured and taken prisoner, along with his crew. He recalls, ‘We were kept in Frankfurt for questioning and then brought to a camp at Wetzlar. We were treated horribly and I lost 55 pounds there in just a few months. When the Germans began retreating in February, they took us with them, forcing us to march on foot, hundreds of miles. Finally, we were liberated by the British at Neuhaus.’” The Bulletin continues, “From then on, the story of Sergeant Jack D’Jemal took on a rosier hue, finishing up with his arrival at long last in the good old United States.”

Fred Betesh writes, June 22, 1945… “I have met two cousins out here, Fred Fallas and Dave Saks, in Nuremberg. Fred came to visit me when he landed in France on D-Day plus 1 but when he found my outfit on the beach, they told him I was killed on the assault landing. Then he had to leave with his outfit. What really happened, as I explained to him the other day in Nuremberg, was that we were hit and had to abandon ship and swim for the beach. One of my buddies saw me, and a few seconds later an 88 exploded right near our Commanding Officer, completely disintegrating him. I was knocked out, but the life belt and the assault gas mask kept me afloat. I was picked up by an English craft, and in December I was transferred to the famous Armored Division. I joined them just as theywere going into Bastogne, where we helped relieve the 101st Paratroopers and the 9th Armored. I’m mentioning this because we received the Presidential citation for that action a few days ago.”

Not all endings were happy, though. Lieutenant Jack Ballas lost his life during combat training on March 31, 1944 when The Flying Fortress, of which he was navigator, crashed near Dyersburg, Tennessee, killing him and five others. Jack had always wanted to fly, and after his enlistment in the army in November 1942 heleft no stone unturned until he was appointed an Aviation cadet. Tragically, Charles Abady, Jack Cohen, Jack Gindi, Clement H. Marcus, David Mehanna, Jack D Mizrahi, Robert Molko, and Edward Sasson were also killed in action during WWII.

Hey, Peepul!

While sadness and fear blanketed the lives of most in the first half of the 1940’s, the
Bulletin was meant to lighten that load. Glynne Nahem’s “Mayhem with Nahem”made the readers laugh, as did “Daffy-nitions,”and “Syrian-syncracies.”Marge Labaton gaveher readers some community gossip in her column, “Hey, Peepul!”Soldiers abroad were happy to enjoy the details and a little color from back home.

Here is a small excerpt from July 1944: “Everything’s up in Bradley this year. The Syrian colony is up here, the rents are up (and how!), the water’s up high, and even the gin rummy stakes are going up! Couples between the ages of 15 and 45 find the West End Casino in Long Branch the place to go on Saturday nights. Seen there recently were Seaman Eddie Perez, Sergeant Morris Marcus from Texas, and Private Meyer Tawil… Jack Sultan has been kept busy lately; Max Franco, just home from duty was seen horseback riding, canoeing, dancing, and
so forth…”

Oceans Apart

“Meet the Wife of a Boy Overseas” ran in each issue. Some men were gone two or three years at a time, missing births, first steps, and more. In July 1944 Mrs. Ray Sultan was featured. “Ray and Al were married just before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. From the moment war was declared all Al’s furloughs were canceled, and soon afterwards he was sent overseas. They have a baby boy who is now over year old and whom Al has never seen. This is something they are both looking forward to with all their hearts. Al has been in the army for over three years now,and Ray, back home, is buying bonds for all she’s worth…”

The soldiers did not have it any easier. After 27 months in the Southwest Pacific, Captain Sam Gindi beheld his two-year-old son for the first time. He writes, “Believe me, while I was overseas there were many times when I’d wonder which would be the right approach to my son. Would I frighten him if I ran over to him, picked him up, and made a big fuss? Should I stand still and let him come to me? There were hundreds of questions that ran through my mind. Guess what finally happened when I did meet him? I just stood paralyzed. I couldn’t say or do anything. As my wife held him in her arms my son looked me over from head to foot, and I felt as though I was standing in front of my CO at a Saturday afternoon inspection. To all of you fellows still over there, no one back home has forgotten you for a single minute. From the bottom of our hearts we pray that it will not be long before all of you are home again with your loved ones.”

Letter from Germany

In the Bulletin during later years many letters arrived bearing news of the shock and abominations the soldiers found upon liberating the camps. The soldiers would not become aware of the full extent of the Holocaust until much later. I will include this one, from PFC Albert Levy.

“Nothing can compare with the horror of the concentration camps we entered some time ago. Living quarters were nothing more than small wall partitions, with room enough only for three men to lie down on the floor (but they alwayscontained at least seven men in each one). Thousands of people were virtually murdered there, actually starved to death. They were political prisoners, mostly innocent Jews, Poles, Russians, and a few anti-Nazi Germans.

“In one big hole there appeared tobe a stack of logs piled up but as we approached it, we realized they were human bodies, shrunken from malnutrition. They were just skin and bones, without flesh at all. Each must’ve weighed about 75 pounds – full-grown men.

“There were a few survivors who miraculously sustained the ordeal. These men and women had to be lifted on the G.I. trucks that would take them for hospitalization and the provision of food. Of course, the ‘innocent’ German civilians ‘never knew about these atrocities.’

They closed their eyes to all the starving dead left in the
fields, and closed their nostrils to the smell of the dead and decaying bodies. I could go on forever but my blood is boiling and I can’t describe anymore. I just thought I’d write and give you a small idea ofthe ‘German culture’ and the civilization of the ‘master race.’”

A Community Center

Plans to raise $500,000 to build the Magen David Community Center were announced on May 21, 1945 by Norman Jemal at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The Bulletin reports, “The dream we have long cherished is now approaching realization,” Mr. Jemal said.
“We have long felt the need of a center for our youth, a place where children may learn the culture and religious heritage that is rightfully theirs, and where they may grow in body, in spirit, and in mind.
At the same time, the community needs a communal meeting ground, to hold services and discussions. Each of us must participate in order to achieve this ultimate goal.”

The Center was finally built on Avenue P and West 13th Street, six years after this original announcement. This would also be the first location of Magen David Yeshivah. Members of the committee serving with Mr. Jemal were Abdo Ades, Isaac Ash, Joseph Ashear, David Bibi, Sam Catton, Ezra A. Cohen, BertDweck, Jack Ezon, Samuel Franco, Jack Gemal, Jack Hamway, Jacob Hidary, Elie Hedaya, Abe Kasaab, Joseph Kassin, Morris Levy, Isaac Matalon, Isaac Shalom, Abe Shamah, Morris Setton, Simon Sitt, Jack Stanbuli, Abe Sultan, Jack Sutton, and Joseph Tawil.

Victory!!!

On May 7, 1945 Private Joe Betesh writes, “Gosh, you should’ve seen this place on Friday night when the news of the JSP’s unconditional surrender was announced! I was in bed with a terrific headache and a general feeling of the blues, but I decided to try to get some sleep. No sooner did I hit the pillow I heard a bunch of guys shouting and screaming as if they had just received their discharge papers. I somehow sensed that something spectacular was in the air. I got goose bumps all over, and tearscame to my eyes. A few seconds later someone ran into our tent and told us that Japan had surrendered! My first vision was that I was with you all at home and by then I was actually crying like a two-year-old kid! Even now as I’m writing my eyes are filled with tears of joy!

“After five minutes the whole city was alive with the news. Everyone was dancing and kissing each other like something you’d read about. I was up all night and was drunk with joy. I don’t think I ever experienced such a feeling in all of my life. The next night with news that we had accepted their surrender, the Navy, too, decided to celebrate. Every boat out in the harbor began to sound the horns, bells, guns, and everything else. The sky was filled with rocket flares and Gd’s beautiful stars. It was really a beautiful site. We finally got to bed at 5:30am. Boy, what a night!”

Welcome Home

Victory Bulletin, September 1945: “The men who have served long, weary, and dangerous hours on the far-flung battlefields of the world are coming home. They are coming home with flags waving and people cheering for the peace and the victory they made possible.”

In Brooklyn and Bradley Beach there were parties that never seem to quiet. For the first time in many years, happiness filled the hearts of every man, woman, and child who was old enough to think.

The Victory Bulletin continued on after the war, eventually becoming the Community Bulletin. The stories told in the small
four-page pamphlet each month are priceless. While it was a horrendous time in history, these bulletins are treasure troves of anger, fear, and also so much love.

With so much thanks to the Sephardic Heritage Foundation, and especially
Rabbi David Azar, for providing us with the Bulletins and all of the amazing details and pictures included here. Please visit the Beit Yosef Synagogue
on Norwood Avenue in Deal where you can find more stories, artifacts,
and photos of the amazing soldiers who risked their lives abroad to defend our freedom here at home.