The family of a Jewish World War I veteran is seeking further recognition for his wartime bravery.
Elsie Shemin-Roth, 81, is asking the U.S. Defense Department to review the case of her father, Sgt. William Shemin, and other World War I heroes, claiming they may have been deprived of the recognition they deserved because of racial or religious discrimination.
Shemin, who was born in Bayonne, saved his fellow soldiers’ lives on three occasions during an intense three-day battle in France in 1918. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, an award one step below the Congressional Medal of Honor. The accompanying citation praised Shemin for “extraordinary heroism in action” and said he “displayed great initiative under fire until wounded.”
“My father thought he should have gotten the Congressional Medal of Honor, but one of the men who served in combat with him told me, ‘He didn’t get it because he was a Jew,’” Shemin-Roth said.
“This man went above and beyond the call of duty,” she told NJ Jewish News in a telephone interview from her home in Labadie, Mo. “Because you’re a Jew, does that mean you are not entitled to be judged with the same standards as everybody else? He was not.”
Shemin lived until 1973 but never fought to gain the recognition. “I would say, ‘Daddy, this is so unfair,’ and he would say, ‘That’s just the way it is.’”
Shemin-Roth is working with Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.) on a bill that would allow a review of Jewish World War I veterans’ possible qualifications for the Medal of Honor.
“Thousands of Jewish soldiers served bravely in defense of our nation during World War I, but unfortunately discrimination at the time denied many of them certain military honors, including the Medal of Honor,” said Luetkemeyer in a press release.
Shemin-Roth said she believes that an army captain who served with her father “was very anti-Semitic. The only reason he recommended my father for a Distinguished Service Cross was because he would have been killed by his men if he didn’t. It was a very nasty situation.”
Out of 3,468 Medals of Honor awarded since the Civil War, 13 have gone to Jews.
Joseph Bendersky, a professor of history and director of graduate studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, told NJJN he had “no specific information on the denial of medals to Jews, although the issue keeps coming up. But anti-Semitism in the U.S. Army was quite prevalent, especially in World War I…. In the minds of anti-Semites, medals won by Jews were rarely deserved.”
Erwin Burtnick, a retired army colonel who commands the Jewish War Veterans in Maryland and reviews records of combat heroism, is not sure whether anti-Semitism is to blame for the lesser award Shemin received.
Nevertheless, he said, “it looked like it would have been an appropriate recommendation for a Medal of Honor. Some of the other DSC citations were for lesser acts than he had done, and the criteria for the two medals are very similar.”