Vets become b’nai mitzvah at Fort Belvoir

Five b'nai mitzvah stand on the bima at Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation
Five b’nai mitzvah stand on the bima at Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation

One was a prisoner of war in Germany. Another fled Germany and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. A third served in the U.S. Navy in France.

This past Shabbat, five men and one woman, who served in World War II and a widow whose husband was a cryptologist during World War II and Vietnam, celebrated their love of country and religion by sharing in a joint b’nai mitzvah at Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation. The youngest participant at the simcha that was held at the Army base in Fairfax County was a mere 83 years.

Following the suggestion, and in some cases prodding, by Rabbi Randy Brown, the veterans, who had to be at least 83 years old and a member of the Fort Belvoir community, said prayers each had an aliyah and spoke about their lives when they were 13 years old.

“We are still buzzing and celebrating a wonderful Shabbat,” Brown said. The service was held to “honor everything they have done,” he explained.

Jerry Wolf, a flight engineer in the U.S. Army Air Corps, didn’t grow up particularly religious, but his family made sure he learned Hebrew and Yiddish as well as the importance of being a Jew. After being shot down on his 25th bombing mission, Wolf became a prisoner of war in Germany.

“They knew I was Jewish,” he said of the members of the German Luftwaffe who guarded him. But, he survived, even receiving a Hebrew Bible, which is now stored at the Pentagon. As for the Yiddish he learned as a child, it helped him through that year of imprisonment, he said, by allowing him to communicate with his captors.

Wolf went on to have a career with the federal government, working at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn and the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. The Springfield, Va., resident, who turned 90 in April, speaks at area schools about his war efforts, being a prisoner of war and what it was like for his family not to know if he was alive or dead for close to seven weeks after he was shot down in 1944.

Frank Cohn, who was called up to the Torah as a Kohen, was born in Germany, but fled that country in 1938 when he was 13. “We escaped on a visitor’s visa,” arriving a few days before Kristallnacht, he recalled. “That kind of saved us,” he said, explaining that his family might have been sent back to Germany if it hadn’t been for the destruction wreaked that evening.

He later was drafted, serving as a staff sergeant in the field of military intelligence. Following college, he returned to the Army, where he stayed until 1978. After that, he worked in the administration of the University of Maryland, helping to renovate its dormitories.

Cohn, who became a bar mitzvah in Germany, vividly recalls the anti-Semitism of his youth. His second grade teacher wore a Nazi uniform and his fellow students donned Nazi paraphernalia. “I had to sit down when they stood up,” he recalled, adding, “I was a pretty quick runner. I got away.”

Soon Cohn began attending a private Jewish school, walking by signs that read in German “Jews Not Desired” or “Jews Forbidden,” he said. “You could tell you were a second-class citizen,” said the 88-year resident of Mount Vernon ,Virginia.

Fellow b’nai mitzvah celebrant Edna Salzburg was a physical therapist during World War II. She was first assigned to be aboard a ship for patients being transferred. “I asked to get off. I didn’t want to spend my time cruising the Mediterranean,” she said. She soon found herself at a hospital in Cherbourg, France, where she mainly applied heat to the backs of soldiers who were sore from sleeping in the fields. But not all her efforts were that basic. She recalled helping strengthen the upper extremities of a soldier who lost both legs after stepping on a mine.

Marriage and the birth of her children ended her military career, but she continued working as a physical therapist for many years.

Salzburg is proud to finally have had her bat mitzvah. “My family was Orthodox. Girls were not bat mitzvahed,” she said. Saturday morning, she had an aliyah with her granddaughter, who is in her 20s.

Bea Kleier also never became a bat mitzah for the same reason. Still, the 88-year-old woman learned Hebrew from a rabbi who came to her home.

Through her late husband, Joseph, she has been affiliated with Fort Belvoir for many years. He was a cryptographic officer during World War II and stayed with the service as an adviser during Vietnam and later working at the Pentagon.
Kleier, who was an accountant, spent many a Shabbat at Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation and was president of the sisterhood at one time.

Following the event, Wolf proclaimed, “It was wonderful.” He saved special praise for Rabbi Brown, who “did a marvelous job.”

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