This column was originally supposed to run Nov. 9 but was replaced by a time-sensitive column on HIAS in Rhode Island.
Back when I was in elementary school – in Rochester, New York, or in Cranston – national holidays played important roles in our school days.
Each holiday had its own specific identity and history, which we celebrated in lessons appropriate to our grade level. Each became part of our shared culture and identity as Americans.
By the end of fourth grade, for example, we had memorized the words to “In Flanders Field,” written by Canadian military officer and poet John McCrae, and we knew, among other facts, that at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the “The Great War,” “The war to end all wars,” had ended in the defeat of the Kaiser and his Austrian friends.
No special Armistice Day sales enticed shoppers to visit stores. It was not a day off from work, though it was marked in various ways – parades, prayers, speeches. There was no mistaking the purpose of the holiday as we honored those who served and those whose lives were cut short by the war.
Undoubtedly, the most prominent member of the Jewish population of Rhode Island to serve during World War I was Col. Harry Cutler, who came to this country when he was 8. He, his mother and his sister had left Russia after the murder of his father.
Cutler’s young adulthood was spent in a succession of menial jobs until, he wrote, he “found his gait” in jewelry manufacturing. He prospered. Industrialist, philanthropist, Jewish community leader locally and nationally, Cutler worked tirelessly to bring together differing Jewish groups for common purposes.
Col. Cutler’s military career did not include service in WWI. He earned his rank as a member of the National Guard and as an aide to Gen. John J. Pershing during the Mexican Border Campaign in 1916. His service during The Great War lay in his work as one of the founders and the chairman of the executive committee of the Jewish Welfare Board in 1917-18.
When the United States entered WWI, the Jewish community, unlike other national religious groups, had no single organization prepared to deliver needed services for its soldiers and sailors. Local YMHAs and Jewish community centers were the only source of help.
In recognition of this lack, 10 national Jewish agencies came together to found the Jewish Welfare Board. Cutler was chosen to head the new organization because of his military background, his proven skills as an organizer and his tireless work on behalf of Jewish causes. He was someone who could bring together the Jewish community’s disparate agencies.
The JWB was Col. Harry Cutler’s service in World War I – and the group still serves Jewish men and women serving in all the wars the United States has fought since “The War to End All Wars.”
Jack Cleinman was 13 years old when his family emigrated from Russia in 1909. He entered the Army in April 1918, and less than two months later was sent to France, where he served with the 101st Infantry 78th Division. Pvt. Cleinman was hospitalized with wounds and shellshock suffered during the Battle of St. Mihiel. Less than two weeks later, he was returned to combat. He was killed on Oct. 20, 1918, at Bois des Lorges, France, during the Meuse Argonne Offensive.
The square at the corner of Hope and Olney streets in Providence was named in memory of Jack Cleinman.
A square at the corner of Orms Street and Douglas Avenue in Providence was named for Abraham Sydney, who served in Medical Unit A.E.7 Evacuation Hospital #5. He died on Dec. 19, 1918, in Dunkirk, France.
For many in the Jewish community of South Providence, the onset of WWI brought a feeling of angst. They were immigrants from Austria who made homes in the vicinity of Willard Avenue. They organized their own synagogue, Bais Israel Anshe Oestreich (better known as the Robinson Street shul) in 1906, as well as a beneficial society. Though supportive of the action against the Kaiser, they worried about the safety of family members and friends who served in the Austrian army.
The angst became even more acute when the U.S. entered the war, especially for American soldiers like Charles Koffler, an immigrant from Austria. Koffler served with Company C of the 302nd Infantry in 1917 and 1918. During those same years, his father and brother served in the Austria-German army. Fortunately, he never faced them in combat.
In 1954, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, a day to honor all the veterans who have fought, and are fighting, in wars that were supposed to have ended in 1918, but which have not.
GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-331-1360.