WWII POW from Detroit, buried under a cross in the Philippines, finally has a Jewish grave
Just two family members were able to attend a recent graveside ceremony for Arthur Waldman of Detroit. He was only 27. The small family gathering on Feb. 12 wasn’t a result of social distancing. Arthur wasn’t a victim of the coronavirus. This wasn’t even Arthur’s funeral. It was a long-overdue rededication ceremony.
Pvt. Arthur Waldman, of the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment, took his last breath in a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camp in Tokyo on Jan. 17, 1944. After enduring the infamously brutal Bataan Death March, he suffered unspeakable conditions as a slave laborer for nearly two years. Subject to unmerciful beatings, he would eventually succumb to beriberi heart failure, attributed to severe vitamin deficiency. Another way of saying Arthur most likely starved to death.
Arthur would be interred at several locations overseas, one time in a storage unit until the U.S. government acquired enough land to lay him to rest for the final time in the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines. We don’t know the date; those records were destroyed in a 1973 fire at a St. Louis center housing official military personnel files. His final interment was absent of any family members.
While Arthur could finally rest in peace, this was not the final chapter of his journey. That remained to be written when it was discovered that Arthur Waldman, the beloved son of Jewish immigrants Rudolph Waldman and Irma Weiner, had been buried under a Latin cross.
Turns out the mistaken grave marker, like many now being investigated and corrected, was a result of insufficient information at the time of the burial, rather than an injustice. It was common practice in WWII for Jewish servicemen to leave blank their religious affiliation on their dog tags to avoid retribution should they be captured by the enemy. Therefore, in the absence of a declared religion, a cross was the default grave marker.
It would take more than 70 years before a Star of David marker would replace that cross and recognize Arthur as a proud Jew who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. The righting of this wrong during the Feb. 12 ceremony was a culmination of an exhaustive collaborative effort.
It began with former Detroiter Vicki Katz, 49, and her husband, Rich, 56, of Torrance, California. Vicki is the great-niece of Arthur Waldman. Rich is a history buff and self-proclaimed “genealogy addict.” He’d been working on his wife’s Ancestry.com profile in April 2019 and initially focused on Arthur because of “the chilling stories he had heard about his having to endure the Bataan Death March.”
Eventually, it was a visit to the website Find a Grave that would reveal to the Katzes a photograph and the stunning revelation that Arthur’s grave was incorrectly marked with a cross. Rich said it took him several passes at the photograph before it actually sunk in. “Oh, my God,” he recalled saying at the time, “we must fix this.”
Rich was introduced to the grassroots 501(c)(3) organization Operation Benjamin (OB) by Rabbi Irv Elson, a Jewish military chaplain familiar with its work. That’s where he began the vigorous effort to rewrite the final chapter in Arthur Waldman’s life.
OB’s stated mission: “To locate Jewish personnel at American military cemeteries all over the world who were buried under markers incorrectly representing their religion and heritage; correct these mistakes and provide comfort to the families of the fallen, without any cost to the families involved.”
The vision of this undertaking was born out of an unforgettable visit by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, a university professor at Yeshiva University in New York, to the Normandy American Cemetery in France in May 2014, just days shy of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
“I was deeply moved to walk among the close to 10,000 graves of soldiers killed on and around D-Day, June 6, 1944,” Rabbi Schacter wrote upon his return in the New York Jewish Week. It also raised a question. “All that breaks the symmetry is the occasional Jewish star in a huge sea of crosses. I began to feel that there should be more Jewish stars represented.”
Schacter enlisted the help of his friend Shalom Lamm, a New York real estate developer with a master’s degree in military studies, to assist in a fact-finding mission. A student of Schacter’s later assisted in expanding the database.
Lamm, in turn, sought the help of his mechutan (father of his child’s spouse), Steve Lamar, an amateur genealogist and co-founder of OB. Their search party grew to five when fundraising allowed the hire of full-time professional genealogist Rachel S. Silverman. The search, originally known as the Normandy Heritage Project, was on in earnest.
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SETTING THINGS RIGHT
A database search required, without apologies, some profiling — the seeking out of Jewish-sounding names. It yielded what the team thought would be their first candidate, Army Pvt. Benjamin Garadetsky. A tireless genealogical investigation confirmed his Jewish heritage.
Approval for a marker change was granted by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), the government agency that manages 26 U.S. military cemeteries around the globe. “They’re the guardians, custodians of the soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Lamar said.
On June 20, 2018, family, friends, Schacter, Lamar and officials from the ABMC gathered at Garadetsky’s grave in the Normandy American Cemetery in Collevillesur-Mer, France, to witness the official ceremony replacing the cross with a Star of David.
Once Jewish graves in cemeteries outside of France were identified, the Normandy Heritage Project officially changed its name to Operation Benjamin to honor, as described by Schacter, his organization’s “first returning soldier, Pvt. Benjamin Garadetsky.”
Arthur Waldman’s final resting place would be among a group of the next five Jewish soldiers to have their grave markers rededicated under the guidance of OB and the ABMC.
The rededication of a gravesite needs rock-solid proof and the permission of a descendant of the fallen soldier. “It’s important for the ABMC that they see proof of Jewish heritage not only from the perspective of the family but also from the local Jewish community,” says OB genealogist Silverman. The same goes for Operation Benjamin in their confirmation of a soldier’s Jewish identity.
“We hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Silverman said. “We work hard to be 1,000% certain that the evidence of a Jewish soldier’s identity is incontrovertible.”
HOW THE JN HELPED
To that end, the final dossier prepared for the ABMC on behalf of Arthur Waldman is 32 pages long. The William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History, overseen by the Detroit Jewish News Foundation, figures prominently in the exhibits presented, including marriage announcements and obituaries of Waldman and Weiner family members, as far back as 1933.
“For Arthur, the JN showed us through the length and breadth of time that his family not only identified themselves as Jews, [but] they were also identified within their Jewish community,” Silverman said. Most fascinating, yet sobering, were the wartime articles discovered within the pages of the JN. The Feb. 19, 1943, edition of the JN chronicled Waldman’s meeting up with fellow Detroiter Cpl. Sydney Wolfe in the Philippines. It seems the two crossed paths many times in Detroit and in Army training camps, but never actually met until they arrived in the islands.
A photograph with the story showed a jovial Waldman and Wolfe together. The news that accompanied the photo, however, was devastating: “Latest War Department releases report them both prisoners of the Japs.”
Almost two years later to the day, Feb. 2, 1945, the JN published updates on Waldman and Wolfe in side-by-side stories. The Wolfe family, it was reported, had received their first letter from their imprisoned son since August of 1943, stating he was in good health. Sydney Wolfe would survive his captivity and eventually return to Detroit.
Waldman’s parents also received a postcard, the contents of which were not published, but which was described as “the first communication they had received in years.” The postcard confirmed he was a POW. What they didn’t know at the time was their beloved son Arthur had already died in captivity more than a year earlier.
CLOSURE AT LONG LAST
On Feb. 12, having just traveled more than 7,000 miles from their home in Torrance to the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines, Vicki and Rich Katz participated in the ceremony that would finally bring closure to the long wartime saga of their uncle, Pvt. Arthur Waldman.
Shalom Lamm, Steve Lamar and Rabbi Jacob Schacter of OB, the team who collaborated with the Katzes, also traveled from the U.S. to witness the rededication. ABMC Chief Operations Officer John Wessels and the American and Israeli ambassadors to the Philippines were among other dignitaries in attendance.
Vicki was grateful for the chance to represent her family at the rededication and “to honor Arthur’s life and service, to give him the funeral he deserved and, in some way, let Arthur know that his sacrifice was not forgotten.”
Little is known about Arthur Waldman’s life in Detroit prior to the war other than, according to the JN, he was “a graduate of Northwestern High School, he attended Wayne University for one year, majoring in commercial art and advertising, worked for his brother-in-law of Shore’s Cafe, and was formerly employed at Harry Suffrin’s,” a well-known men’s haberdasher.
Operation Benjamin’s work is far from done. Hundreds of Jewish soldiers buried under crosses await identification. The coronavirus has postponed the next scheduled headstone rededication for three Jewish officers in Belgium and France on May 20.
While the Katzes sought out Operation Benjamin, in most cases it is Lamm who reaches out to family members to inform them of OB’s discoveries. In describing those phone calls, he says, “There’s always that moment of stunned silence. Of disbelief. Memories emerge as if from a distant fog, and then almost always there’s the remembrance of parents who were so pained by the experience they could never talk about it without crying.”
Operation Benjamin is in more than just the business of changing grave markers. The exhaustive research they perform and interviews they conduct do for descendants of lost war heroes what the soldiers couldn’t do for themselves — tell their story. Or, as Vicki Katz states in her case, “we came to know Arthur as a real person.”