Today, June 6th is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when allied forces landed in Normandy on the coast of France in the largest seaborne invasion in history, in an effort to push back the Germans in WWII. Most historians see that battle as the turning point in the war that propelled the allies to victory.
However, it didn’t come without a very heavy cost. The American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach holds the remains of 9,383 servicemen and four women. As Americans, it is incumbent on all of us to pause today to remember the extraordinary sacrifice these close to 10,000 people made fighting not only for American freedom, but to liberate our Jewish ancestors imprisoned and persecuted by Germany.
Among the mostly cross grave markers at the Omaha Beach cemetery are 149 Jewish stars, marking the graves of the Jewish soldiers who gave their lives fighting in the American army at Normandy. One Jewish American soldier who did not die in Normandy, though he came very close, was Hal Baumgarten whose story is worth remembering today.
During WWII, approximately 550,000 self-identified Jews served in the US military. Rabbi Akiva Males, in an article entitled “Jewish GIs and Their Dog-Tags,” explains that Jewish GIs, fearful of being identified as such by their Nazi captors, were left with the following options:
1) Have no letter of religious preference stamped on their dog-tags.
2) Make the “H” stamped on their dog-tags illegible.
3) Discard their dog-tags completely prior to being taken captive.
4) Have a letter signifying a different religious preference stamped on their dog-tags.
Jewish soldiers took advantage of all four options with some changing their designation to Christian, something Rabbi Males likens to a responsa of Rav Oshry who allowed a Jewish man in the Kovno Ghetto to add Roman Catholic to his passport.
Hal Baumgarten, who was a 19-year-old private from New York, chose none of the above four options. He explained that no one knew about the atrocities the Germans were committing against Jews in the concentration camps, but he had seen the newsreel footage of “Kristallnacht. ” He was also aware that when Germany invaded Poland and other countries they made Jews wear the Star of David. Baumgarten said he wanted the Germans to see he was a Jew, “but I had a M-1 rifle.” So, instead of identifying as a Christian or simply taking Hebrew off of his dog tags, he proudly drew a Star of David on the back of his uniform jacket.
A couple of years ago, when telling his story to a group of students at East Carolina University, Hal described that he avoided seasickness on the boat trip across the English Channel because he had some Cadbury chocolate instead of the big breakfasts the other soldiers devoured. When they arrived in Normandy, seasickness was the least of his worries.
A German machine gunner shot down most of the men exiting Baumgarten’s boat. There were 30 soldiers in his boat and only two of them, including Hal, survived. He made it to the beach and German machine gunners and snipers kept picking off men to the left and right of him. He lost his upper jaw, he had a hole in the roof of his mouth and shrapnel in his head, but he kept shooting and advancing. He then stepped on a mine-like device that left him with a wound to his left foot. That injury slowed him down and he was straggling behind when machine gunners killed almost every person in the unit he had joined.
By then he was nearly unconscious from blood loss so he gave himself a morphine injection so at least he wouldn’t be in pain as he waited to die. He woke up hours later, on a pile of dead soldiers. Using a machine gun, he caught the attention of an ambulance crew that transported him back to the beach for evacuation. It was there that German snipers started killing the wounded and Baumgarten suffered his fifth injury, a bullet to his right knee. He believes the Germans would have killed him, but because of the blood, they did not see his Star of David.
Over the years, Hal Baumgarten underwent 23 operations to heal the physical wounds he suffered in Normandy, seventy years ago today. He became a doctor and practiced for forty years helping heal others. While his physical wounds have healed, the emotional wounds of witnessing what he saw and experiencing what he went through never go away. As a proud American and proud Jew, Hal has shared his story at countless schools and D-day events and captured it fully in his book, “D-Day Survivor: An Autobiography.”
Let us pause today to thank Hal and all of those who survived the landing at Normandy for their heroism, bravery and tenacity. Let us also remember the nearly 10,000 members of the United States military who gave their lives seventy years ago fighting for the freedom we enjoy today.