The epiphany that inspired the American Jewish War Heroes Yahrzeit Program came to Ellis Corets on the Shabbat before Veterans Day in 2011. Corets, a tall, thin native of the Bronx who moved to the Seattle area in 1962 to work in engineering and finance, had served as a first lieutenant in the US Air Force during the Korean War. That Shabbat, when Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum at Mercer Island’s Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation asked veterans to stand and be recognized, Corets found himself contemplating all the service men and women who had not come home from foreign wars. “How,” he wondered, “do you remember these kids who may not have anyone saying the Kaddish for them?”
Corets, now 86, had lost his wife Roberta the prior May, so issues around death and memory were on his mind. As he stood for the mourner’s Kaddish, he reflected on the fact that a synagogue is not only a place of assembly, worship and education, but also a place of remembrance. Corets resolved to extend that remembrance to all those who gave their lives for their country and never returned home.
Fusing technology and old-fashioned page-by-page research, Corets has since assembled a database of some 3,650 Jewish American service personnel killed or missing in action in World Wars I and II who are buried or memorialized in American cemeteries overseas. Corets’s databases, available free online, include each soldier’s name, hometown, rank, branch of service, decorations, cemetery, and date of death or date missing in action on both the Hebrew and secular calendars. Participating synagogues can include a name in their weekly yahrzeit lists and draw on the information Corets has assembled to sketch in a brief bio of the fallen service member.
Corets’s project received a boost in April, 2012, after a chance encounter with Robert “Bob” Shay, commander of the Seattle post of the Jewish War Veterans. Shay, a Navy veteran of Vietnam, has helmed a decades-long project of placing American flags on the graves of every Puget Sound-area Jewish veteran. Shay happened to be present at Herzl Memorial Park the day Corets unveiled his wife’s tombstone, and the two Jewish veterans got to talking. When Corets mentioned the yahrzeit program, Shay provided a book in a series published by the National Jewish Welfare Board listing Jewish personnel who served in World War II and advised him to contact the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), a national organization that supervises America’s 26 overseas military cemeteries.
By cross-referencing half a million names listed in the series of books with information provided by ABMC cemeteries, Corets painstakingly expanded his database service member by service member. “Each night,” he says, “I would not sleep until I found at least one service member in the books who was buried or memorialized in an ABMC cemetery.” He then converted the date of death to a yahrzeit date and added the name to the database.
Now that Herzl-Ner Tamid and a handful of congregations around the country have been using the database on a weekly basis for five years, one would think that Corets could finally rest, but a startling discovery drove the next phase of his research.
After World War I, General John J. Pershing declared that the proportion of Jews who served would be the basis for placing Stars of David on the graves of the unknown fallen. Yet that precedent was not followed after World War II, and all 6,508 overseas graves of the unknown dead from World War II are marked with crosses. “If 4.23 percent of service members were Jewish, there should be 275 Stars of David on the gravesites in direct proportion to the numbers who served,” Corets wrote in a letter to the ABMC. But in a response dated July 6, 2017, the acting secretary of the ABMC wrote, “Court rulings have established the historical precedent of the cross as serving as a common symbol of sacrifice without religious connotation.” This decision was made in 1948, when the commission unanimously decided it would be inappropriate for a grave of a Christian unknown to be marked with a star.
Through his research, Corets has also found more than 100 Jewish service members buried under crosses — some of whom chose not to identify as Jewish on their dog tags. Corets took to the computer to compose another letter to the ABMC to call attention to the respect due the Jewish war heroes who gave their lives for the freedom and liberation of Europe and the Pacific in World War II. “Looking back at my lifetime, this could be the most important thing I’ve ever done — remembering Jewish kids who gave their lives for their country,” Corets says. “If other patriots could step forward and take this to the next level, to veterans advocates and members of Congress, it’d mean a lot to me.”
If you’d like your congregation to participate in the American Jewish War Heroes Yahrzeit program, you can download the databases, user guide, and supporting materials for free at mag.jewishinseattle.org/articles/heroes.