Veterans Day. . . . Today is Veteran’s Day. World War I officially ended on June 28, 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed at the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France. However, the fighting actually ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918 is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.” In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…” In 1954, by an act of Congress, Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day, to honor all who died in the service of our country.
World War I was a brutal and bloody war. All told there were some 37 million casualties, both military personnel and civilians. Many more returned from the battlefield suffering long-term trauma. I’d like to tell you what I know about just one of them.
One story among the millions. . . . As many of you know, my father Philip died quite young, in 1965. He had two uncles, Al and Sam, who were the brothers of my Grandma Josie, my father’s mother. About two years after my father died, my mother and I took a few days during the school vacation to visit my father’s cousin Burt, Al’s son, who lived with his family in Bethesda, MD. Since it had only been a few years since the assassination of President Kennedy, Burt took my mother and me for a walk through Arlington National Cemetery. As we walked, Burt happened to mention to my mother that he and Phil had “another uncle.” My mother was clueless. Burt said, “he is buried here at Arlington.” We didn’t visit the grave, and the whole episode remained a total mystery to me for some 30 years until I returned to Arlington to investigate it myself. Either my father never knew about this uncle, or he never mentioned him to us.
A cross on the grave of a Jew. . . . What Burt did tell us was that when his father Al passed away, Burt found some information about this uncle, and he went to Arlington to see for himself. When he arrived at the grave, he was aghast to find that this man had been buried under a cross. Apparently, no one from the family, particularly the man’s own brothers and sister, ever came to see for themselves, and probably didn’t know about this mistake. Burt went into the office of Arlington and proclaimed, “This man was my uncle. He was a Jewish man. He cannot remain there buried under a cross.” The official told him he would have to pay for a new slab, to which he agreed readily. And it was done.
My own search. . . . During the very week that the second Iraq War broke out in 2003, Steve and I were down in Washington for the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. One afternoon I made use of a bit of free time to get into a cab and go to Arlington, to find my long-lost great-uncle. I went into the office to inquire. Through family correspondence that my Uncle Harold (my father’s brother) had in his possession, I realized that this mysterious uncle had written to his sister (my Grandma Josie) rather frequently. He signed the letters alternately “Jamie” and “Yankel.” My grandmother’s maiden name was Udelson, but that name originally had been Utahl. So when I spoke with the woman in the office, I didn’t exactly know what name to give her—neither first nor last—nor the exact date of death. But persistently she drew out of me whatever I did know and fed it into the computer. And sure enough, she came up with the name, and the location of the grave.
A confused life, a sad end. . . . Here is what I have been able to figure out, from verbal commentary and written letters in the family. I don’t know if I’m 100% correct, but it’s my best guess. . . Jacob Udelson (a.k.a. “Jamie,” or “Yankel”) was my Grandma Josie’s brother. Apparently, he had been given to gambling and womanizing, and Josie did not approve of his lifestyle. He served in World War I, and, as did many others, suffered “shell shock.” Today we might identify this syndrome alternately as clinical depression, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Several years after the war, Jacob could no longer find a way to live in this world, and committed suicide—on Armistice Day. Suicide, however, was a “shonda” for many families, including ours, and my Grandma Josie ordered the family never to mention his name—ever. My father was a kid at the time, so he either never knew about his uncle, or was sworn to life-long secrecy by his mother.
When the Army had to bury this man, there was no one from the family to represent him. They only had a name and a rank, so they assumed they should bury him under a cross. Eventually his nephew, my Cousin Burt, corrected this awful mistake, and had a new stone slab placed over the grave with a Star of David on the top.
This, then, on this Veterans Day, is my tribute to my great-uncle, Jacob J. Udelson, z”l, and all those whose lives were snuffed out by the violence and trauma of war.