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Why I’m Honoring Col. Isaac Samuel Israel This Memorial Day

By Chaplain, Major Steven I. Rein

In observance of Memorial Day, JWB Jewish Chaplains Council® (JWB), a signature program of JCC Association of North America is honored to share this poignant, personal essay by Chaplain Steven I. Rein, a JWB chaplain. Chaplain Rein was commissioned in the United States Air Force in 2005 and currently serves at Arlington National Cemetery.

It was March 2, 2020. The band was in place. The honor guard had their rifles at the ready. The pallbearers carried the casket from the hearse to the caisson. I saluted the American flag and stood at attention. The commander of troops signaled with his saber, and the solemn procession began to wend its way through the sacred grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.

For over 150 years our nation has honored her fallen patriots at our nation’s shrine in Arlington, Virginia. The hallowed stones are solemn memorials to the individuals who answered the call of their country. Each gave of themselves for the sake of freedom. Some paid the ultimate price. Some served many years, others served but a few, but all served so that this nation might always be free.

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On this day, wearing my ceremonial uniform, I came to this garden of stones, to this final resting place, to honor Colonel Isaac Samuel Israel for his distinguished service to our nation. Col. Israel was born in Istanbul, Turkey, and came to the United States in 1933 at the age of 17. He quickly learned English and was off to Oklahoma State to study chemical engineering. In 1941, he joined the Army Air Forces as a navigator flying C-47 transport planes. He flew across the English Channel on D-Day and was later shot down in Holland. With flames coming from the engines of his aircraft, he miraculously navigated an emergency landing, saving the entire crew. Once on the ground, Col. Israel and his men faced another problem: They were in enemy territory. They spent a week in the woods, traveling only at night until they could cross back into friendly territory.

On April 26, 1945, Col. Israel and his men approached the Dachau concentration camp. On that day, the Germans forced more than 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, on a death march, shooting anyone who could no longer continue; many died of hunger, cold, or exhaustion. Three days later, on April 29, Col. Israel, along with American forces, liberated Dachau. In early May 1945, American forces liberated the prisoners who had survived that fateful death march, including Benjamin Weltman.

Ben Weltman, originally from Sosnowiec, Poland, was 18 years old. After spending some time in a Displaced Persons camp, he was able to immigrate to the shores of the United States. A few years later, he met a lovely young woman, Gerda Bigz, who, with her family, had fled Vienna, Austria, in the aftermath of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) in 1938. Gerda and Ben were married in 1953, and two years later, their little girl, my mother, was born—prompting the ultimate feeling of liberation for the couple and their hope for the future.

Exactly 60 years after my grandfather was liberated from Dachau, I raised my right hand and declared: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States…I will well and faithfully discharge the office upon which I [entered]” (Oath of Office). Sixty years later, I became a reserve chaplain in the United States Air Force—supporting the nation that liberated, gave hope, and welcomed my grandfather with open arms. Little did I know that I would be stationed at Arlington National Cemetery, standing over the grave of an American hero, Col. Isaac Israel, one of the liberators of my grandfather. I am, quite literally, here today because of his bravery. I am here today because an American patriot sacrificed his life for a brighter future—a future in which these prophetic words will ring true: “Everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

Across the Potomac River, near the World War II Memorial, is a monument to another American hero. On it are found these words: “In life, he honored the flag. In death, the flag shall honor him.” The men and women of our armed forces honored that flag. And today, on this Memorial Day, the symbol of our great nation honors our American patriots—and I honor Isaac Samuel Israel, Colonel, USAF.

Chaplain Steven I. Reinis a reserve chaplain in the United States Air Force and currently serves as the Jewish chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery. He is also the spiritual leader of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia.

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