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His Judaism delayed Medal of Honor for WWI hero
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His Judaism delayed Medal of Honor for WWI hero

Bayonne’s William Shemin is celebrated at new historical society exhibit

Sgt. William Shemin saved some 30 men from his platoon during World War I. Because he was Jewish, William Shemin didn’t receive the Medal of Honor until 2015 when President Barack Obama presented it to Shemin’s daughters. Photos by Robert Wien
Sgt. William Shemin saved some 30 men from his platoon during World War I. Because he was Jewish, William Shemin didn’t receive the Medal of Honor until 2015 when President Barack Obama presented it to Shemin’s daughters. Photos by Robert Wien

When William Shemin was growing up in Bayonne at the turn of the 20th century he never dreamed he would become one of the heroes of World War I.

But in August 1918, near the town of Bazoches, France, Sgt. Shemin braved heavy German artillery fire in broad daylight to rescue three wounded men from the battlefield, before returning to battle to save some 30 others in his platoon.

His act of heroism was not officially recognized until 2015, when President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor, America’s top military award, to his two daughters, Elsie Shemin-Roth and Ina Shemin-Bass, in a White House ceremony. The certificate which accompanies his medal salutes Shemin for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life above and beyond the call of duty in the combat with the enemy.”

The 97-year delay in honoring Shemin for his bravery was due to the fact that he was Jewish. “It takes our nation too long sometimes to say so because Sgt. Shemin served at a time when the contributions of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked,” said the former president during the ceremony.

Shemin’s medal, along with his uniform, his gas mask, and even the bullets he saved as souvenirs, will be on display through Dec. 29 as one of the key exhibits at “How One Year Changed the World,” an exhibition of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) in Manhattan.

The exhibition focuses on three key events of 1917, from the perspective of American Jews and other minorities: the U.S. entry into World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Balfour Declaration, in which Great Britain pledged support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. 

The AJHS exhibition in New York dovetails with a local display of Greater MetroWest contributions to World War I. That exhibition, “Greater Metro West and WWI,” will be held at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Campus in Whippany. The official opening on Oct. 3 will include a reception and feature a four-piece jazz band that will perform popular songs from the World War I era. Sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of NJ (JHS), the exhibit will run until Nov. 13. 

The JHS exhibition will feature recruiting posters, uniforms, letters, vintage photographs, and artifacts of Jews who fought in the war and from those who supported them. 

The focus of the AJHS display in New York is primarily on Jews, but “It actually stands for all hyphenated Americans,” said executive director Rachel Lithgow, as she led NJJN on a tour of the exhibit. She noted that blacks, Latinos, and immigrants from places such as China, Italy, and Ireland were also victims of bigotry during the first few decades of the 20th century.

The exhibition contains a bound copy of the original Treaty of Versailles that ended the war, the desk in Scotland at which British Foreign Secretary James Balfour wrote the final version of the Balfour Declaration, as well as the initial draft that was handwritten on stationery from the Hotel Imperial in London.

“The declaration reverberates today,” said Lithgow. “The English made promises to two different groups of people, the Jews and the Arabs of Palestine, and its implications extended beyond them.”

One example was how it influenced Marcus Garvey, the Jamaica-born founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey was an advocate of American blacks moving to Africa to develop autonomous republics and a “huge” proponent of the Balfour Declaration, according to Lithgow. “In essence, he was a Zionist because he felt American blacks could reclaim Africa and have their own homeland because he did not feel they were welcome in the United States.”

Among other rare items on display in New York are: 

• The robe and official nameplate of Louis D. Brandeis, a staunch advocate of human rights and civil liberties, and the first Jew to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Others on the bench at that time “refused to sit next to him or have their photograph taken with him,” Lithgow said;

• The first-generation sheet music for “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” an iconic pop song from World War I, written by composer Irving Berlin, an American soldier and a Jewish immigrant;

• A recruiting poster for the U.S. Army…in Yiddish;

• The field diary of Jacob Rader Marcus, a historian and Reform rabbi who founded the American Jewish Archive;

• A photograph of Jewish women who joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1918 but were only allowed to serve as clerical staff members.

In 1925 there were close to four million Jews in the U.S, said Lithgow. Among the 300,000 immigrants to America that year, 10,000 were Jewish. Another 25,000 Jews were trapped in Europe and prohibited from entering the United States until after World War II.

When Lithgow was asked what the world learned from this period, she replied, “Nothing.” 

“The same conversations this exhibit highlights that were going on in 1917 are the same conversations we are having in 2017. We are still talking about women’s reproductive health. We are still talking about immigration. We are still talking about minorities. We are still talking about who is American and what it means to be American….. We’re now having a moment from 100 years ago and we can learn from the choices we made in 1917 — both good and bad.”

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