On Veterans Day, as we honor the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, I was inspired to look into our Museum collection for artifacts that reveal interesting stories of the wartime experiences of soldiers. Of the many items from which to choose, this small songbook struck me as a fascinating example of how World War II American Jewish soldiers doubly identified with the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany. United behind a common cause, soldiers and the American people at large shared a deep sense of patriotism. For Jewish servicemen and women, defeating Germany and the Axis powers was more urgent still: the survival of European Jewry was at stake, as well as the defeat of hatred, discrimination, and ethnic persecution.
Two symbols on the cover reveal who published the songbook and hint at its purpose. “JWB” stands for the National Jewish Welfare Board, formed at the start of World War I to support Jewish soldiers in the U.S. military. The JWB supplied ritual objects and miniature prayer books, as well as food packages complete with gefilte fish and honey cake.
In 1941, the JWB joined with five other service organizations—including the YMCA and the Salvation Army—to strengthen the morale of the Armed Forces. This consortium quickly became known as the United Service Organizations, or USO—the other symbol on the cover. The songbook, we can gather, was meant to bolster both the spiritual and emotional well-being of the troops.
Selected Jewish Songs for Members of the Armed Forces includes hymns and songs in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish “suitable for Sabbath and festival days and other social and cultural group meetings.” The book mixes patriotic songs (“God Bless America”), liturgical music (“Sh’ma Yisrael”), and even old-time spirituals (“Go Down, Moses”). The songs reflect the democracy of national, cultural, and religious identities of the soldiers who sang them. Most important in the dark years of World War II, they represented—and served—the cause of freedom.