Gregg Philipson is a man with a passion for history—not just the information, but the tangible. Old and dusty hide the intrigue and mystery of the past, and he believes it is his role to uncover it and share it with the public.
Philipson and his wife Michelle Warech-Philipson are avid collectors of historicana. Over long decades of collecting, they have amassed a historically significant collection of thousands of antique and vintage artifacts, many of which are exhibited internationally, including the Shanghai Jewish Ghetto Museum, the Japanese Unit 731 Criminal Evidence Museum in Shanghai and Harbin, China, and venerable museums and institutions such as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and others.
Philipson’s own story is the story of American Jewish history itself: His family left Eastern Europe in the 1800s, and settled in Utica, New York, where Philipson himself grew up. Philipson’s maternal grandparents lived not far away in Yonkers, New York. Their only son, PFC Jerry Degenstein, was killed in action while serving with the US Army’s 26th Infantry Division in northern France in November 1944. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals. Degenstein’s death impacted Philipson’s grandparents very deeply. There was so much grief in the house that Philipson’s mother was sent away to a boarding school.
Before his grandparents passed away, they asked Philipson, who was named for his uncle, to keep their son’s memory alive. This personal request has driven Philipson to not only honor his uncle’s memory, but the memory of many others. “I feel the need to honor the voices of those who can no longer speak for themselves,” he says.
Philipson’s military ties run deep within the family, even beyond the Gold Star element: Philipson’s paternal grandfather, Sergeant Louis Philipson, served in the Army during World War I, while his uncle Herbert served in the US Navy. Philipson’s father, Sergeant Bernard Philipson, was with the US Army’s 8th Armored Division’s 18th Tank Battalion during World War II and saw action in three major European campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge. He and other members of the 8th AD liberated the Langenstein Concentration Camp, a sub-camp of Buchenwald. Philipson’s father-in-law, Sergeant Joseph Warech, was a Holocaust survivor from Poland who served in battle with the US Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Korea, and a cousin, Ben Philipson, was a Navy officer during World War II.
In a sense, it was Philipson’s family connection to the military that helped him along on his journey of preserving history. It also got him thinking about all the veterans and families who have lost loved ones. “It had meant so much to my family to obtain records and information about our family members,” Philipson says. “It occurred to me that we could use our knowledge and resources to guide people through this process, and help them find their relatives. We feel strongly that someone should be there to support them.” So in addition to collecting historical artifacts, he advises people who want to preserve their family histories.
Philipson was just eight years old when he began his collecting hobby, and he has never slowed. Over all that time, Philipson has come across items that he feels tell a broader story of Jewish military service in America. Some of the oldest items in the Philipson Collection are service related. For example, Philipson has original newspapers from the 1700s that mention Haym Salomon, the famed Jewish Philadelphian broker who financed 10% of the American Revolution, as well as a 1975 US postage stamp honoring him.
In his art collection, Philipson has original “G.I. Joe” cartoon strips by Sgt. Dave Breger, a Jewish artist who served in the Army during World War II. This comic ended up being one of the most popular strips of the war, and this directly caused American troops to be referred to by the endearing moniker “G.I. Joes.”
The extensive collection also features artifacts from Jewish sports personalities who served in World War II, such as legendary first baseman Hank Greenberg, OSS operative and catcher Moe Berg, and—a larger-than-life figure previously featured in The Jewish-American Warrior—Hall of Fame boxer Barney Ross. Signed postcards, photographs, and time period magazine covers are all among the items found in this portion of the collection.
The Philipson collection also holds a variety of Jewish chaplain miscellanea, with items such as an authentic Four Chaplains Medal, a WWII/Korean War-era Jewish chaplain’s kit and tallit, alongside newspaper articles about notable Jewish Chaplains Roland Gittlesohn, Alexander Goode, and many others. “We collect artifacts about so many important people,” Philipson explains. “It makes them seem real, not just legends.”
Philipson lectures regularly throughout the world, hoping to make an impact on his listeners, particularly regarding antisemitism. “My focus is talking to young people, so I can make a positive impression on them,” he says. “There is so much hate out there and it seems to gravitate toward people of the Jewish faith.” He sadly notes that while less than 1% of the world’s population is Jewish, the amount of hatred against Jews is disproportionally beyond those numbers. Still, Philipson tries not to get stuck in the depressing. “Despite generations of suffering, people of the Jewish faith have accomplished so much for the betterment of mankind. We are a tiny yet impactful people.”
Philipson believes that the tactile experience of interacting with an artifact impacts his audience. “Authentic artifacts bring the history to life so it’s no longer just a story,” he says. One item he brings to his Holocaust seminars is an oversized leather suitcase with an ominous yellow star on it. Seeing and feeling this Holocaust-era item gives one a visceral sense of the individuals caught up in the turmoil of those years. Philipson has also had occasion to bring special guests to his talks, such as Colonel Ralph Hockley, a Holocaust survivor who escaped the Nazis twice. After joining the US Army on his 18th birthday in December 1943, Hockley served overseas in Nazi-occupied territory until 1946, first working as a radio operator and later switching to counterintelligence, eventually spending several decades with military intelligence.
When presenting the Holocaust to children and teens, Philipson explains how hate is generated from different sources. He brings history to life, weaving positive stories into discussions about human rights, presenting facts, yet allowing people to draw their own conclusions. “In my experience,” he says, “most students in middle and high school haven’t formulated all their opinions yet, and this is a prime opportunity for them to do so. The use of artifacts to explore history through tactile senses helps young people understand it in a more gentle way.” In his presentations, Philipson encourages participants to apply history to their own lives, encouraging them to “be an upstander, not a bystander.” Overall, Philipson has found that his talks have been very well received; in fact, he finds that his message resonates particularly well with members of the military.
Philipson is highly motivated to continue both his collecting and his lecturing. “By telling people’s stories, you can understand yourself, your family, our people’s history, and the histories of other people and their families. The good, the bad and the ugly—we can certainly learn from it all.”
His wife Michelle agrees. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, the importance of telling stories is ingrained in her. “It’s a great responsibility to be guardians of this historic collection,” she says. “In particular, I believe that bringing the history of the Holocaust to thousands of people of all ages every year honors the memory of those brutalized and murdered by the Nazis and their many collaborators. It is a mitzvah that we will continue until we are no longer able.”
Originally published in the Purim 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.