Capt. Sondra Mendelsohn, a critical care doctor with the PA Air National Guard, never gave much thought to the old burlap bag with faded Red Cross markings in her basement. She certainly never dreamed that her great grandfather’s bag was itself of historical interest; let alone that it contained a treasure trove of museum worthy documents. But when she and her husband, WO2 Andrew Swerdlow (PA ARNG), were going through their belongings in preparation for a move, they came across the old bag – a family heirloom of sorts, inherited from her grandmother – they thought it would be nice to figure out what to do with it. She knew the bag had letters from her great-grandmother, Chana, to her great-grandfather, David. Further examination of the bag revealed documents and a picture showing that David had served in the Jewish Legion of the British Army during World War I. Upon her husband’s suggestion, Sondra shared the pictures with a Whatsapp group called Jewish Military Troops in the hopes of getting some basic translation of the Yiddish letters. The material indeed elicited robust interest, as well as some quick off-the-cuff translations.
And then a deployed Army LT spoke up: “Those should be in a museum for preservation.” Moments later, CSM Sam Yudin (CA ARNG), president of the Jewish American Military Historical Society (JAMHS), was tagged, and the little family moving project was granted wings. CSM Yudin knew immediately that the material was of value, but he was even more impressed when he received the entire archive. “There were only 10,000 soldiers who served in the Jewish Legion, 5,000 of which were American volunteers,” says Yudin. “Letters from soldiers serving in that era are scarce, let alone an entire collection of 60-80 letters!” Mendelsohn and her family gave permission for the JAMHS to study the collection. “We were sort of nervous at first to trust Sam with this entire collection of things that can’t be replaced,” Sondra admits, “But he was so enthusiastic about doing it that it inspired me to take a blind leap to send them across the country.” For Yudin, this was an exciting opportunity, right in line with the purpose of his organization. “JAMHS has a mission to research, preserve and educate people regarding Jewish American military history,” Yudin says. “We partner with both the private sector and non-profits to bring innovative ways to interact with this history; using an adaptive, open-source, and collaborative way of doing business. It’s very exciting to be able to get our hands on these letters and unlock some mysteries from that time period of history.”
Yudin immediately got to work, drawing in historians and archivists from the California State Guard, as well as translation assistance from several military members: Chaplains Shaul Rappeport (USAF), Elie Estrin (USAFR) and Yitz Rosenberg (USCGA), as well as Amn Shmuel Roth (USAF). The letters are slowly being preserved, itemized and digitally transcribed, using the best practices known, which makes it a slow, intensive process.
As the letters are being translated, information from the letters have been cross-checked with the history of the Jewish Legion. Five battalions of the British military made up the Jewish Legion; the 39th Battalion of which was built on mostly American volunteers, including David Mendelsohn. The knowledge of this history enables the team to reveal where Mendelsohn served, and who he served with – for example, Mendelsohn may well have done his basic training in a camp in Nova Scotia alongside future Israeli Prime Minister David BenGurion and the legendary Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
After his training, Mendelsohn most probably went to England, Palestine, and was later posted to guard prisoners of war in Egypt as a member of the Royal Fusiliers; B Co, 39th Battalion of the Jewish Legion in 1919. This fact of history cast light on the story behind one interesting family heirloom: a snake, embroidered with sequins, spelling out the words: “Turkish Prisoners 1919.” Chana Mendelsohn mentions the gift of the snake from her soon-to-be husband, in a letter reading:
“Today is a holiday for me; not because it is after the 9 Days when we could not eat any meat, rather, because it had already been nearly 3 weeks that I had not received any letters from you; but from early in the morning until now, I have received four letters and a package, in which you sent me a present, for which I thank you very much. I had to go to the Pennsylvania Post Office and open it there and show what it is. But when I opened it, I was scared to look at it, because generally, I do not like snakes.
But when I took it out of the box and really contemplated how pretty it is in its detailed handiwork, it greatly appealed to me. I showed it to my mother and brother, and they were fascinated by it. My father was sleeping, and I hung it up on the gas lamp to see if he would be frightened by it when he woke up, seeing a snake on the gas lamp. But my older brother later came in, and my father was already up and was walking around the house, and he had not noticed it right away. I lost my patience already! My little brother asked them if they hadn’t seen something strange? Only then my father noticed it; he liked it very much.”
After this letter was translated and sent around to Sondra’s extended family, her cousins responded in shock – they still had the snake, which had lain untouched in their mother’s suitcase for close to 30 years!
More is yet to be revealed as the team works on translating and preserving the letters one by one. For Captain Mendelson, it’s all part of a bigger picture; one that she is very pleased to play a part in. “I feel really proud that my great-grandfather served; especially considering that he was just a recent immigrant, and I am excited that I can continue to serve in the same military that he did. Ultimately, given the rise in antisemitism in this country, this shows that we’ve been here, and we’ve been serving. This is our country too.”
You can follow the progress of the MENDELSOHN LETTERS COLLECTION on the JewishMilitary.com website.
Originally published in the Tishrei 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.