Jewish World War II Soldier Finally Rests In Peace

By | Jun 24, 2024
Highlights, History, Latest
On the left, a black and white portrait of a smiling American soldier in uniform. On the right, two officers begin ceremonially folding an American flag while standing next to a wooden coffin.

Shortly after the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, a Jewish second lieutenant from Pittsburgh, Nathan Baskind, was on a reconnaissance mission through the bucolic Normandy countryside when German soldiers opened fire. Baskind was hit, as was the driver of the Jeep in which he was riding. The driver, Private First Class Orville Burnett, managed to escape. He informed his superiors that Baskind was almost certainly dead.

But Baskind was still alive, although critically wounded. The Germans transported him to a decrepit Luftwaffe hospital in the nearby French port city of Cherbourg. He died hours later at the age of 28, a lonely example of the high price American GIs and allied soldiers paid to defeat Nazism. With Cherbourg a primary target of U.S. forces once they broke out of the Normandy beachhead, the Germans put Baskind in a mass grave with German casualties. After the war, American authorities were certain Baskind was dead, but without remains for burial he was listed as MIA—Missing in Action. His name was carved into the Wall of the Missing at the Normandy cemetery.

In fact, Baskind’s remains were on a circuitous route that culminated on Sunday, June 23, 2024—80 years to the day after his death—when Baskind’s descendants gathered at the U.S. cemetery at Normandy for burial beneath a Star of David, with full military honors. Also present were leaders of Operation Benjamin, an organization principally devoted to replacing crosses above graves of Jewish-American war dead with Stars of David. Operation Benjamin’s tireless efforts to exhume and identify Baskind bore witness to a little-understood chapter of World War II history—550,000 American Jews (4.2 percent of the total in uniform) served in the Army, Navy and Marines, and an estimated 7,000 lost their lives in combat. Three Jews earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, the military’s highest honor for valor.

At the graveside ceremony, Baskind’s great-niece Samantha Baskind offered remarks and received the customary folded flag. “”Today, he will really be at rest in France,” Samantha Baskind said. “Today, a jagged scar in my family will be at least partially healed.” Samantha Baskind also placed a bronze rosette next to Nathan’s name on the Wall of the Missing, signifying that Nathan had been found. She joined Nathan’s nephew, Stewart Sadowsky, in lowering the casket into the ground. Among the speakers was Brigadier General Kareem Montague, the highest-ranking Army officer at the ceremony.

The story of what happened to Nathan Baskind’s remains and how they were recovered after 79 years is part detective novel, part “hand of God,” and part tale of redemption—especially for the handful of German officials whose cooperation proved crucial.

Nathan Baskind’s paternal grandfather was one of six brothers and one sister. Most of them emigrated one by one to the United States from Ilya (in what is now Belarus), settling in Cleveland. They found employment in a “stogie” (cheap cigar) factory, and eventually went into business producing their own brand, known as “Baskinols.” They also marketed cigar-leaf remnants as chewing tobacco. But ultimately they hung their dreams of success on wallpaper, a must-have in prosperous middle-class homes across America. Nathan’s father Abe married Lena Shapiro, a Pittsburgh native, and moved there before U.S. entry into World War I in 1917. He opened a wallpaper business with other family members in the late 1920s. Nathan grew up on Darlington Road in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, and was in charge of branch stores outside Pittsburgh when he went into the Army in 1942. At five-foot-five, Nathan was a natural for duty inside the confined spaces of a tank. Eventually, as a second lieutenant, he became a platoon commander of four M-10 tank-like vehicles in the 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion. He landed with his unit at Utah Beach, a less bloody location than the adjacent (and more famous) Omaha Beach.

After the war, in the 1950s, West Germany’s commission for recovering remains of German soldiers exhumed the unmarked mass grave at Cherbourg. They relocated the remains they found—23 Germans plus Baskind—and reburied them along with Germans from another mass grave. The new gravesite was at Marigny-le-Lozon, 7.4 miles from Omaha Beach. The Germans found Nathan Baskind’s second-lieutenant bars, dog tags and unit patch, and turned them over to U.S. officials. But in that long-ago era before DNA matching, the U.S. Army knew it could not positively identify Baskind’s remains, so no one told the Baskind family of the high probability of Nathan Baskind’s burial at Marigny.

At the graveside ceremony, Baskind’s great-niece Samantha Baskind offered remarks and received the customary folded flag.

In the late 1950s, the Germans erected a plaque at Marigny marking the names of 18 German soldiers buried there—plus the name of Nathan Baskind. The plaque also stated that 33 “unknown German soldiers” were in the grave. In subsequent decades, the Jewish-sounding name’s presence on the marker caused a fair amount of head-scratching among tour guides and others who happened upon it.

The secret of Nathan Baskind’s fate remained hidden in plain view until December 2022 when a Jewish-American archival researcher and genealogist from Fairlawn, NJ, Eric Feinstein (among whose specialties is “finding lost relatives”), contacted his friend Shalom Lamm, chief historian of Operation Benjamin, with a curious discovery. Feinstein described poking around the database of the German War Commission (known as the “Volksbund” in Germany) and finding an apparently Jewish name, Nathan Baskind, on the plaque at Marigny. He noted that Baskind evidently was a deceased American GI, because his name was also on the Wall of the Missing at the U.S. Cemetery in Normandy.

Operation Benjamin is a 501(c)3 donation-financed organization focused on identifying Jewish-American war casualties with crosses as grave markers and replacing them with the Star of David. “Benjamin” was Private Benjamin Garadetsky, a Jewish-American soldier buried under a Latin Cross at the Normandy cemetery. His case was the group’s first success story, resulting in the cross above his grave being replaced in 2018 with a Star of David.

“I found it personally so painful,” Lamm recalls of when he first heard about Baskind. “It’s one thing to be an MIA, that’s painful (for the family). It’s another thing to be buried under the wrong marker. But for a Jewish kid from Pittsburgh to be buried with German soldiers under three Latin crosses, it just tore at my heart!” Ultimately, Lamm said to his colleagues: “We’ve got to do something about this.”

Exhuming a mass grave required skilled physical anthropologists, and experts in DNA matching and ground-penetrating radar. Operation Benjamin had no experience in any of this, but the first step was to confirm what they already suspected: Operation Benjamin head researcher Rachel Silverman contacted the Volksbund to find out about the marker and whether Baskind’s remains had in fact been buried with those of German soldiers. “He’s there,” Silverman was told. “We were just blown out of the water,” Lamm recalls.

Establishing the Jewish bona fides of Nathan Baskind and his family was the next step for Lamm and his team. They set about building a family tree that linked up Nathan to Jewish ancestors going back to Ilya, as well as his descendants. Samantha Baskind, an art history professor at Cleveland State University with a wide presence on social media, was in Amsterdam enjoying an exhibit of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s artwork when she received an email from Operation Benjamin: “‘We have some very important research to share with you.”

“When I got the email, I thought it was spam,” Baskind recalled. “‘But it seemed compelling. It piqued my interest enough not to delete it.” She had very few childhood memories of anyone in the family talking about Nathan Baskind. Her primary recollection was of her father referring to him as a “Jewish-American war hero.” But “that went right over my head,” Baskind recalls.

The plaque at Marigny marking the names of 18 German soldiers buried there—plus the name of Nathan Baskind (in the second row of names). The plaque also stated that 33 “unknown German soldiers” were in the grave.

The task ahead—persuading the German government to let the group exhume a military gravesite for DNA testing—seemed insurmountable. Once the Baskind family gave their consent to Operation Benjamin to pursue the process, Lamm, Operation Benjamin’s president, Rabbi Jacob Schacter, and others reached out to the sympathetic German ambassador to Israel and his military assistant (both of whom spoke fluent Hebrew). The Germans were encouraging at first, but eventually the head of the Volksbund, Dirk Backen, told Lamm and Schacter that digging up a grave site in search of one American would be a “bridge too far.” He offered to put up a monument at the gravesite with a Jewishn Star, commemorating Nathan Baskind.

 

Lamm, Schacter and their colleagues decided not to take “no” for an answer. But first they felt compelled to explore what Lamm called “a fascinating Jewish question”—the propriety under Jewish law of disturbing a grave and reburying partial remains. In Jerusalem, they consulted Asher Weiss, an American-born rabbi who has worked with the IDF and Mossad. After listening to Lamm and Schacter, Weiss admitted frankly he had no idea. He researched the question but could not come up with a precedent—in the absence of which, he advised against disinterment. Operation Benjamin’s Rabbi Schacter offered to try to find such a precedent, and eventually came back with a treatise by an early 20th-Century rabbi in the United States who faced a similar situation and went forward with the reburial. The rabbi in Jerusalem was shocked to learn the treatise was written by his own great-grandfather. He promptly reversed himself and told them “proceed.” For Lamm, it was the first of many “spiritual puns” that elevated hope that the remains would be recovered.

The Operation Benjamin team made an appointment to see Dirk Backen of the Volksbund in Berlin. They prepared a video that ended with Samantha Baskind offering a direct appeal to permit the exhumation of her lost great uncle’s remains. Backen, a retired Brigadier General in the post-war German army, clearly was moved. “Let’s go find Nathan Baskind,” he said.

That was September, 2023. In the following months, Operation Benjamin assembled a full team of experts who examined the graveyard’s sub-surface with ground-penetrating radar, and started to dig. They found a number of sacks with bones in them. Since Nathan Baskind was shorter than average at five feet five inches, it would be easier to identify his bones—if they were intact. The Germans by that time were also searching for a German MIA of the same height. That helped narrow the search—the team looked for full bones matching someone who stood five-foot-five. Fragments would not suffice.

Samantha Baskind, Stewart Sadowsky and a few other relatives had submitted to DNA testing. When a few of the bones showed a match last December, Lamm took out his phone to convey the good news to Samantha Baskind.

In an interview last week, Samantha Baskind recalled how she felt when Lamm, called her late last year to say “we have a match!”

“I couldn’t even speak for the first moment; Shalom gave me space,” she said. “My heart was beating out of my chest. I cried tears of happiness…and relief. Relief that we found Uncle Nate; relief we are coming to a close. It was so emotionally draining.”

“I don’t believe in miracles but it is kind of a miracle that this actually happened,” she added.

“Sometimes people accomplish things because they don’t know it’s supposed to be so tough, you shouldn’t do it,” Lamm said. “I was stupid enough to pursue this and I got incredibly lucky! The fact that we found him is just frankly outrageous.”

As outrageous, perhaps, as another strange series of “spiritual puns.” Lamm’s sister-in-law lives on the same street that Baskind grew up on in Pittsburgh—Darlington Road—for 36 years, and an Operation Benjamin board member grew up around the corner. Not only that, but two weeks ago Lamm was at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany witnessing the dignified Transfer of Remains from a German army honor guard to an American counterpart. At the end, an American bugler stepped forward and sounded Taps. Afterward, Lamm’s wife looked at the video of the transfer and noticed something unusual. She and Lamm zoomed in on the bugler’s nametag. “Wouldn’t you know it?” Lamm laughed. “The name of the bugler was Darlington!”


Top Image: Left: Nathan Baskind. Right: Baskind’s remains were reburied on Sunday, June 23, 2024—80 years to the day after his death—with full military honors. Photos courtesy of Samantha Baskind.

2 thoughts on “Jewish World War II Soldier Finally Rests In Peace

  1. Dr Burt Nussbaum says:

    May his Memory be a blessing for his family and people of the Jewish Faith around the world

    This article is special for me. I grew up in Squirrel Hill. I went to the same elementary school and Taylor Allderdice High School. I am a graduate of The Hebrew Institute of Pittsburgh. My military experience was in the Navy serving in Italy.

  2. hag says:

    A more than ridiculous exercise… CRUEL… I have been to several of those… and have vower NEVER to attend another…

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