D.C. museum’s focus is American Jewish military history

A German helmet and Italian ceremonial knife on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Photo by Samantha Cooper

Tucked away in a small stone building on R Street, a casual passerby might think the
National Museum of American Jewish Military History is just another apartment building like its neighbors.

The tiny museum houses an extensive collection of photos and military paraphernalia from Jewish soldiers in its two floors. Open during business hours, and on Sundays by appointment, the museum’s collection has items dating back to the 1800s. But most of the collection comes from World War II.

“Over half a million American Jews were serving in World War II,” says Program Director Mike Rugel. “It’s tough to break away from the gravity of World War II.”

The first exhibit a visitor will see is “Jews in the American Military,” which tells the story of how Jews began to serve. A looped video tells about Jewish soldiers like Samuel Drebin, nicknamed “The Fighting Jew,” who fought in four wars, and Alfred Mordechai who fought in the Mexican War and turned down a post with the Confederate Army.

The Klein exhibit

The loop ends with President Abraham Lincoln permitting people of any faith to serve as military chaplains.

The room is also filled with items that soldiers collected or sent as gifts: a coconut that one soldier mailed to a relative, bomber jackets and war trophies, like a German helmet and an Italian dagger. There is also a small wooden ark, not even three feet tall, that was used by a military chaplain in World War II.

Paul Wright, visiting the museum for a lecture, said he loves being able to look at the exhibits.

“I love looking at the letters that went back and forth between the
soldiers [and their] wives and girlfriends,” he said.

There are many more artifacts on display as well. Some are personal items from soldiers that are designed to show their humanity, like the ostrich coat donated by a soldier’s wife, and a chest with prayer materials that soldiers carried.

Other exhibits include “A Mother’s Grief,” which focuses on the death of a 19-year-old soldier, photos from the 1933 March against Nazi Germany, and a display of Jewish Medal of Honor recipients.

On Monday, the basement was the site of a lecture about Finnish Jews and their role in World War II. It’s not the kind of event you’d expect at a museum dedicated to American Jewish military history. Rugel says he’s happy to stretch.

“It’s such a narrow niche, Jews in the American military, that when [programs] are related, we’re happy to have things that are interesting,” he says. And the lectures often bring in people who wouldn’t otherwise have known about the museum.

Yvette Pena, here for the lecture, says she wants to tour the exhibits the next time she’s in the area. “I love history,” she says.

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Twitter: @SamScoopCooper

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