In a time when Israel’s ethos is wrapped up in remarkable statistics – as the 100th smallest country in the world, Israel has played a significant role in the development of the cell phone; Windows NT and XP operating systems; Pentium MMX chip technology and voicemails; with a net gain of trees entering the 21st century; developing the first fully computerized, no-radiation, diagnostic instrumentation for breast cancer, to name just a few devellopments.
It is easy to forget the painfully slow process of building political support for a Jewish state. There are interesting Minnesota connections to the incremental political steps which culminated in David Ben Gurion reading Israel’s Declaration of Independence 65 years ago on May 14, 1948 at the Tel Aviv Museum. These Minnesota connections include a role played in the decision of President Harry Truman to recognize the State of Israel only eleven minutes after the Declaration went into force.
In terms of the possibility of a Jewish state in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people, Minnesota was on the scene early in the aftermath of the First World War. This was a time when the victorious Allied powers (the United States, Great Britain and France) were creating the 20th and 21st century Middle East – for better or for worse – with the nations we know today as Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. (See David Fromkin’s “A Peace to End All Peace” ) A fulcrum at the making of the modern Middle East resulting from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was the Paris Peace Conference. Present at the conference were delegations from throughout the world trying to generate support for their national political aspirations. (David Ben Gurion and Ho Chi Minh met while staying at the same hotel in Paris in 1919, the same year Ben Gurion signed an agreement with Emir Faisal pledging cooperation in their respective national movements.)
The competition for influence and profile in Paris occurred on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States emerged from the First World War relatively unscathed – in contrast to the devastating losses suffered by the European combatants – with President Wilson determined to remake the world in accordance with his “Fourteen Points” speech. Point 12 was “Non-Turks in the old Turkish Empire should govern themselves.” Point 14 called for the creation of a League of Nations “to guarantee the political and territorial independence of all states.” These Wilsonian points – first articulated in a speech to the United States Senate on January 8, 1918 – were the point of contact between American idealism and the European penchant for “Great Games” as represented by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
These Wilsonian Points became the point of departure for those interests in the Middle East (Jewish, Arab and others) seeking their say in the Paris Peace Conference. The campaign to strengthen Jewish interests in the Paris Peace Conference had an American corollary. This road led both through Washington, DC and the nation’s state capitols, including Saint Paul. In Rabbi Gunter Plaut’s “The Jews in Minnesota: The First 75 Years” (American Jewish Historical Society, 1959) he reports passage of the following resolution by the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1919:
“JOURNALOf TheHOUSEOf The FORTY-FIRST SESSION Of The LEGISLATURE Of The STATE OF MINNESOTA
69th Day] FRIDAY, APRIL 11, 1919. 1541
AFTERNOON SESSION.___________At 2:30 o'clock P. M. the House reconvened.
Mr. Levin offered the following concurrent resolution:
Whereas the future prosperity and peace of the world depend upon the just and equitable settlement of the European war, whereby each and every nationality, however small, shall be granted the liberty of determining its own destiny and the opportunity of living its own life.
And Whereas the government of the United States of America is recognized as an urgent exponent of the rights of the small nations;
Therefore, Be it Resolved by the House of Representatives of the State of Minnesota, the Senate concurring, that it is our opinion that the national aspirations and the historical c1aims of the Jewish people with regard to Palestine, be recognized at the Peace Conference in accordance with the British Government's declaration of November 2nd, 1917, that there shall be established such political, administrative and economic conditions in Palestine as will assure the development of Palestine into a Jewish commonwealth and that American representatives at the Peace Conference shall use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.
Be It Further Resolved that it is our opinion that express provisions be made at the Peace Conference for the purpose of granting Jewish people in every land the complete enjoyment
of life and liberty and to the end that justice may be done to one of the most suffering people on earth, the Jewish people,
And Be It Further Resolved That a copy of these resolutions be transmitted by the Chief Clerk to the President of the United States.
Mr. Levin moved the adoption of the resolution.
Which motion prevailed.
Mr. Swenson, O. A., moved a call of the House.
The roll being called, the following members answered to their names:
Adams, Anderson, Arens, Arneson, Baxter, Bendixen, Bernard, Berve, Bouck, Boyd, Briggs, Brophe,Burdorf, Burrows, Carlson”
Minnesota became the ninth state to pass such a resolution at the time it was considered.
The resolution – while largely symbolic from a Minnesota vantage point – was both prescient and a marker for the deliberate pace of the incremental building of support for Zionism inside and outside of the Jewish community in the United States. It would take until 1942 – at a gathering of Zionist leaders from 18 countries known as the Biltmore Conference – for adoption of a resolution calling for a “Jewish Commonwealth” in Palestine echoing the 1919 Minnesota resolution. By this time, the Holocaust was well underway by the Einsatzgruppen in German occupied Soviet Union and by design, in the aftermath of the Wannsee Conference in January, 1942.
* * * * * * *
The events of May 1948 were dramatic as the British evacuated Palestine having declared an end to their mandate – against a backdrop of the November 1947 United Nations’ vote partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The bloody struggle for Palestine had begun in earnest shortly after the partition vote with the Arab Higher Committee vowing to destroy any nascent Jewish state. Again, across the Atlantic, a corollary struggle was unfolding in Washington, DC as the various parties sought to influence the Truman Administration and the policy it would follow for the future of Palestine after the end of the British Mandate on May 14, 1948.
There was a Minnesota connection to the political denouement in the White House: the Minnesotan, Max Lowenthal. Mr. Lowenthal’s role hasn’t been completely lost to history – it is discussed in the 1990 book by Michael J. Cohen, “Truman and Israel.” (Lowenthal’s papers are now fully organized and indexed at the University of Minnesota’s Andersen Library.)
In broadest strokes, this history is the story of Max Lowenthal earning the trust of Harry Truman over years of work. It is also the story of Mr. Lowenthal being in the right place at the right time as a presidential assistant – where counsel, given quietly, was deeply considered.
Mr. Lowenthal was a University of Minnesota graduate and graduated Harvard Law School in 1912. (His father was a founder of Kenesseth Israel Synagogue in Minneapolis.)
* Mr. Lowenthal, according to the Cohen book, was a protégé of Justice Louis Brandeis. Lowenthal introduced Truman to Brandeis and others in Jewish “New Deal” Washington, DC circles.
* Lowenthal served as chief counsel to the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee from 1935-1942 where he and Truman met and established a friendship that lasted until Truman’s death in 1973.
* Vic Messell, Truman’s secretary in the Senate commented: “Lowenthal was a mystery man… He exercised power behind the scenes…”
* Key Truman presidential advisor Clark Clifford brought Lowenthal to the White House in 1947 as Clifford’s chief advisor on Palestine affairs. Lowenthal wrote voluminous memoranda on the subject of Palestine with, according to Clifford, the underlying premise: “The United States should support the Zionist cause, come what may.”
In the momentous days leading up to May 15, 1948, Lowenthal’s memoranda were a critical counterworking center-of-gravity to the pro-Arab positions of the State Department and Department of Defense. He argued in one memorandum that maximum advantage for the United States lay in an “immediate statement” that he [Truman] intends to recognize the Jewish state when it is proclaimed.” Lowenthal asserted this recognition was consistent with American national interests since it would strengthen the US relative to the USSR, reduce violence in Palestine and strengthen the United Nations.
Truman wrote a letter to Lowenthal in 1952 in which he noted:
“I know exactly how you feel about the ideas of your not wanting to be considered as benefactor to the State of Israel but I don’t know why you should because I don’t know who has done more for Israel than you have.”
Yet, when Lowenthal was interviewed by the Truman library staff in 1967, according to Michael Cohen, he claimed he never discussed Israel with Truman during that time – at all. Lowenthal said he heard second hand from another White House staffer about Truman’s decision to recognize Israel.
Putting aside the issue of Max Lowenthal’s modesty, President Truman’s decision to recognize Israel was a decision of historic proportions which has echoed throughout the world ever since.
I'm sorry to see fatuous comparisons between Native Americans and Palestinians given such prominent space in the Sunday (March 24) print edition of the Star Tribune.
It would be much better to discuss the President's trip to Israel and the Middle East and the intricate and intimate choreography resulting in, hopefully, the resumption of full diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey, thus strengthening America's position with respect to Syria and Iran. It would better to discuss the possibility of resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians after the President's meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Abbas in Jerusalem and Ramallah. It would be better to discuss Pope Francis – the "New World Pope" in the words of Time Magazine – and his dedication to alleviating poverty.
Alas, there is little choice but to respond to the mischaracterizations articulated.
Start with the proposition – as I once heard Elie Wiesel say – that it is difficult to compare the suffering of one people to another.
As Jews, also, who have been subjected to genocidal attempts of extermination, we are deeply sensitive to the pain and loss suffered by Native Americans, and other victims of genocide. Indeed, a leading early exponent of Native American rights in the United States was Felix S. Cohen, a distinguished scholar and author of the Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1942). Prof. Cohen was a champion of Native American self-government and recognized that a discrimination against one people endangered all peoples.
Jews, also, the world over and in Israel have adopted the mainstream consensus view of the critical nature of a two state solution of Israel and Palestine to safeguard the security of Israel and vindicating Palestinian aspirations. President Obama repeatedly stressed this goal on his visits to Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Amman during his recent Middle East trip.
Jews have supported Palestinian and Native American rights of self-determination.
If comparisons are to be made, begin with Palestinian opportunities for statehood, as opposed to the fate of Native American aspirations in the United States.
As far back as 1937, the Peel Commission of the British Government recommended partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Jewish state was more of a "statelet" comprising – essentially – greater Tel Aviv and portions of the Galilee. The Arabs rejected it.
The United Nations created a Palestinian state in 1947 when the General Assembly voted to create a Jewish and Arab state in mandatory Palestine. Arabs inside and outside of Palestine rejected the partition and immediately took to violence to destroy the compromise culminating in the invasion of Palestine by five Arab armies the day Israel declared its independence.
The two state solution came closest to realization in the summer of 2000 at the Camp David negotiations between President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. A proposed Palestinian state encompassing nearly the entire West Bank and critical concessions for the "final status" issues of Jerusalem and refugees was before Arafat. He rejected this possible end-of-conflict resolution and initiated the Second Intifada.
In connection with the rights of self-determination of Native Americans – no such opportunities have ever been presented. History does not start with the Six Day War in 1967 or even with the release of Leon Uris’ Exodus in 1958.
Indeed, comparisons between Native Americans and Palestinians should also include the most significant morality test of the twentieth century: who did what with respect to Nazism, fascism, and Japanese militarism.
Here lies another great difference between Native Americans and Palestinians. Despite facing confiscation of heritage, history and tribal lands, Native Americans fought for the United States in the Second World War with great valor and distinction in every theater of combat according to the United States Army Center for Military History. Forty-four thousand Native Americans served during the Second World War – 40 percent more enlisted than were drafted. The 45th infantry division – “Thunderbolt” – produced three “Medal of Honor” winners from the European theater. The fifty thousand person Navajo nation provided 420 "code talkers" critical in communication in some of the most intense Pacific combat on the islands of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima. As was the case with African Americans and Japanese Americans, the systemic discrimination and marginalization at home did not deter taking up arms for their country abroad.
The response of the Arab world – particularly to Nazism – could not have been more different. The response to the Third Reich from the Arab world inside and outside of Palestine ranged from sullen neutrality to outright collaboration with Germany as was the case of the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Arabs – Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini. As the Mufti , among other things, he made radio broadcasts from Berlin during the war encouraging the Arab world to fight the allies and advocating for the extermination of the Jews. The record of the Arab world in the Second World War was fully before the General Assembly of the United States when it voted to create a Jewish state – and a Palestinian state – on November 29, 1947.
Sadly, despite the heroic service of Native Americans in World War II, little changed with respect to their condition in the United States in the post war years.
Underscoring these important distinctions is a salient similarity. Native Americans have been present in North America for well over 10,000 years. The Jewish connection to the Holy Land – from where the Jews gave the world the Bible – dates back over 3,700 years of continuous presence despite the destruction of the two Temples and exile with a perpetual hope first in prayer and then in Zionism for redemption in their own land.
Perhaps it was for this reason that Leo Nomis was a volunteer fighter pilot for Israel in its 1948 War of Independence. Nomis was of Irish and Sioux heritage with a heroic and colorful record of service in the Second World War. Before the United States entered the war he served with the Royal Air Force's Eagle Squadron (comprised of American volunteers) as well as RAF assignments on Malta and the Middle East. Nomis transferred to the United States Army Air Force in 1943.
Three years after the end of the Second World War, Nomis volunteered to fly for Israel's fledgling Air Force in its Squadron 101. Nomis noted: "I was sympathetic to the cause and plight of the new Jewish state from day one...” “…It seemed clear that after what happened to the Jews in Europe during the war and by the fact that they were in Palestine, surrounded by hostile Arab nations who had vowed their annihilation, that here was not only a political and military crisis, but a moral issue that one could not, in good conscience ignore…” (Nomis and Cull; "The Desert Hawks: An American Volunteer Fighter Pilot's Story of Israel's War of Independence, 1948"; Grub Street [London], 1998).
(Nomis flew alongside St. Paul's Leon Frankel who was a World War II naval aviator hero who would fly 25 missions in the 1948 war – See "Your Voices" interviews of Frankel from April 26, 2012, and December 7, 2011, chronicling his service in the United States Navy and Israel's Squadron 101.)
The papal resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is literally epochal – having not occurred in 600 years.
For much of that time – indeed until 1964 – views of the Church fathers holding the Jews responsible for the death of Jesus and relegated thereafter to a “wandering, homeless and rejected status” held great sway (“A Lethal Obsession,” Robert Wistrich). In the last fifty years, however, the theological view of the Church has been transformed from eternal damnation of the Jews to recognition of the sibling relationship between Catholics and Jews. This represents a remarkable sea change.
As my friend Jason Adkins, Executive Director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, wished: “Let us hope we will continue to build bridges between Christians and Jews in the succession from Pope John Paul II to Pope Benedict to the next Pope.”
Elected as Pope only five years after the century of the Holocaust, prominent figures in Jewish religious leadership have been praising Benedict XVI, who was of sufficient age to have served in the Hitler Youth and then conscripted into the German Army – from which he deserted – having been raised in an anti-Nazi German family, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The Times of Israel has quoted the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Yona Metzger, as saying the Pontiff “heralded in an age of unparalleled Jewish-Catholics relations.” The Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, described the pontiff as a “compassionate individual who carried with him an aura of grace and wisdom.”
In many respects, Pope Benedict XVI continued in the same forward thinking vein as Pope John Paul II with respect to Jews and Israel. The latter, who lived in Nazi-occupied Poland – became the first Pope to visit a synagogue; recognized Israel; promulgated a ground-breaking encyclical on the Holocaust and was an out-spoken foe of anti-Semitism referring to it as a “sin against G-d” while noting Jews “were our elder brothers” in faith. Praying at Auschwitz, Pope John Paul II stated: “We wish to commit ourselves to a genuine brotherhood with the People of the Covenant.” (“John Paul II and the Jews,” Our Elder Brothers, 2007.)
For Pope Benedict XVI and the Jews, his first official act was writing a letter to Rome's Jewish community. His first trip abroad as Pope was to his native Germany where he visited the synagogue in Cologne speaking out strongly about the “insane racist ideology” that led to the Holocaust. The Pope visited Israel in 2009; visited Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and met with survivors; and prayed at the Western Wall.
The Church's and the Pope's philosophy towards Jews and Judaism was well encapsulated in welcoming remarks from May 2012 to a delegation from the Latin American Jewish Congress (the Pope attended the Second Vatican Council as a young man):
“The Vatican II Declaration ‘Nostra Aetate’ continues to be the basis and the guide for our efforts towards promoting greater understanding, respect and cooperation between our communities. The Declaration not only took up a clear position against all forms of anti-Semitism, but also lauded the foundations for a new theological evaluation of the Church's relationship with Judaism, expressing the confidence that an appreciation of the spiritual heritage that Jews and Christians share will lead to increasing understanding and esteem.”
(Thank you to Father Erich Rutten, Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry at the University of St. Thomas and Chair of the Archdiocesan Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, for providing the text of these remarks.)
A fair picture of Pope Benedict XVI must also include issues which generated concern in the Jewish community. Reaching out to end the schism with the Society of Pope Pius X, the Pope's reversal of the excommunication of unrepentant Holocaust denier, Richard Williamson with other individuals – raised many eyebrows, although, apparently the Pope did not know about his Holocaust denial at the time. (The Society for Pope Pius X has since expelled Williamson for these views.) Campaigning for sainthood for the World War Two-era Pope Pius XII – was seen as premature at best – with the backdrop of an incomplete historical record as a request for the release of non-published archival documents requested by the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission from 1999 – 2001 from the Vatican archives was refused by the Vatican. A return to older pre-1964 Catholic liturgy involving the Good Friday prayer was also seen as a retreat from the teachings of the Vatican II since it called for the conversion of the Jews. However, as Father Rutten points out, Pope Benedict also wrote a new Good Friday prayer for the Jews expressing eschatological hope for us all.
It is our fervent hope that the Pope who succeeds Pope Benedict XVI will follow in both his footsteps and the legacy of Pope John Paul II in strengthening the relationship between Christians and Jews.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) partnered with the Minnesota National Guard to commemorate the United Nations' International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the State Capitol on January 15, 2013. The JCRC expresses deep appreciation to Major Gen. Richard Nash, Adjutant General of the Minnesota National Guard, and many other individuals and entities which made the commemoration possible.
The commemoration filled the State Capitol rotunda with a gathering which included the poignancy of the presence of 35 Minnesota Holocaust survivors and the precision participation of the Minnesota National Guard Funeral Honors Team posting and retiring the colors of the United States of America.
The JCRC thanks the following speakers: Speaker Paul Thissen; Senate President Sandy Pappas; Sen. Warren Limmer; and Rep. Kurt Zellers. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie read a Gubernatorial Proclamation of Gov. Dayton and recalled the Second World War contributions of Governors Stassen, Freeman and Quie. Present also was Rep. Frank Hornstein, a child of Holocaust survivors. The Minnesota National Guard's head chaplain, Col. John Morris, introduced Col. Edward Shames a Second World War veteran of the 101st Airborne, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Col. Shames was the first American officer to see the concentration camps of Landsberg and Dachau which was a topic of his keynote address.
All of the events of the commemoration were in the presence of Major General Nash, Brigadier General Loidolt, Chaplain (Col.) John Morris, and many other officers and enlisted personnel of the Minnesota National Guard.
The cornerstone of the commemoration is the "Transfer of Memory: Minnesota Holocaust Survivor Portrait Project." The project resulted from the collaboration of Minneapolis photographer David Sherman who brought to the JCRC his idea (and photographic talents) to capture Minnesota's blessed Holocaust survivors in color photography. These life affirming portraits were displayed in the north corridor of the State Capitol from Jan. 8 to Jan. 18. Lili Chester, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, wrote the beautiful vignettes which accompanied the portraits. Many hundreds of people had the opportunity to see the portraits.
Speaking on behalf of survivors was Eva Gross who was deported from her small Hungarian town along with her mother and survived Auschwitz and six concentration camps and forced labor and death marches until reaching liberation. Ms. Gross emphasized in her remarks the importance of remembering the Shoah (Hebrew word for "Holocaust") so the lessons are learned to prevent the genocides of the present and future.
This commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day – almost 68 years after the Allied armies defeated Nazi Germany – also provided an opportunity for Col. Shames to see Sgt. Herb Suerth of Wayzata. Col. Shames and Mr. Suerth, a retired engineer, served in the famed Third Battalion 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment and together in "Easy" Company chronicled in "Tonight We Die as Men" (Ian Gardner and Roger Day – Osprey Publishing 2009) and the "Band of Brothers" as depicted by Stephen Ambrose and HBO. Six decades later and thousands of miles from the Battle of the Bulge – where Mr. Suerth was seriously wounded in the successful and heroic defense of Bastogne – their friendship is stronger than ever as each approaches their 90th birthdays.
Their friendship – in many ways – is illustrative of certain experiences of the Second World War where, in this situation, Jewish officer from Virginia and a Catholic sergeant from Chicago were platoon brothers in the desperate defense of the critical road junction of Bastogne in Belgium. Seven roads intersected at Bastogne and the fall of the town could have resulted in a German armored advance and recapture of Antwerp dividing the American and British forces in France and the Low Countries. The fate of the European Theatre of Operations was intertwined with their fates. Nearly seventy years later, they were together again in Minnesota.
Their story begins, though, with Col. Shames basic training experience for the 101st Airborne in Toccoa, Ga. in 1942. The 101st Airborne was conceived during the darkest days of World War II at the height of Japanese conquests in the Pacific with the possibility of opening a second front in Europe in the distant future – with the war coming home with American ships torpedoed against the blackened backdrop of America's darkened coastal cities.
The concept of the 101st was to create a "super unit" of civilian volunteers to bring the war to the enemy via an airborne unit. The army was skeptical, but thousands responded to the opportunity to enlist. Seven thousand volunteers who passed intelligence and physical tests needed to be winnowed down to under a thousand.
Toccoa, Georgia, in the heart of the old Confederacy was the place of the winnowing. Practically no deprivation or training danger was spared for the prospective airborne volunteers. The obstacle course, for instance, was eventually declared "inhumane" with a trail of broken bones left behind. A Marine Corps contingent from Parris Island, South Carolina, inspecting the obstacle course left after a brief visit concluding quickly it was too dangerous for Marine training. Those who survived Camp Toccoa and its daily warm-up seven mile runs up and down an Appalachian elevation and 147 mile forced three day march with 90 pound packs graduated to jump school. Ed Shames was among the survivors of “13 weeks of pain.”
This fierce and unrelenting training enabled Col. Shames to survive scores of days of combat in Normandy to Arnhem to Bastogne and finishing the war in victory at Berchtesgaden. Indeed between seizing the bridges at Canal de Carentan near Brevands on D-Day to the battles at “Bloody Gully” repelling a powerful German counterattack to clearing out the Cherbourg Peninsula the 101st suffered 4,670 casualties – with Edward Shames' unit, 3rd Battalion 506 experiencing the greatest concentration. Sgt. Shames leadership and bravery led to him receiving the first battlefield commission to Second Lt. awarded during the Normandy campaign.
The destinies of 2nd Lt. Shames and Sgt. Suerth overlapped in France when Shames' unit was refitting after the brutal "Market Garden" campaign in Holland in December, 1944. Sgt. Suerth was assigned as a replacement to Shames' platoon. He joined the unit just before the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.
By way of background, Herbert Suerth was born in Chicago in 1924 and graduated from DePaul University High School. He enlisted in the Army after a semester at Marquette University joining the Corps of Engineers as a combat engineer. Sgt. Suerth did not like deactivating land mines and responded to a request for volunteers for jump school in 1944. Normandy veterans were the instructors and training included 500 push-ups a day.
Sgt. Suerth reported to "E" company on Thanksgiving Day 1944 at Marmelon, France, just south of Rheims in France’s champagne country. Nicknamed "Junior" by 2nd Lt. Shames, Sgt. Suerth observed a shocked "Easy" Company ordered into action while still in recovery from two months of combat in Holland. Sgt. Suerth recalls men headed into battle without appropriate winter clothing and in some cases without their weapons, which were being repaired.
Heading north to Belgium to reinforce American forces surprised by the German offensive into the Ardennes forest, Sgt. Suerth saw an American army in retreat – “something you never want to see, like Washington's army in the most desperate days of Valley Forge." The 101st Airborne pushed on – having ridden in open air grain trucks for 18 hours in the midst of the most brutal winter in European history.
Reaching Bastogne, 2nd Lt. Shames and Sgt. Suerth and their platoon became part of the badly outnumbered (in men and armor) American force responsible for holding the town and junction no matter the cost. The 101st and other units did hold as most famously expressed by General McAuliffe's response of "Nuts!" to a German surrender demand of December 22, 1944. On December 26, the battle reached a turning point when the weather cleared sufficiently for large scale Allied air operations to resume which in tandem with the fierce defense of Bastogne began to cause great casualties among the Germans and interfere with troop movement and resupply.
During this time, Sgt. Suerth was badly wounded by a German 88 shell which killed four American soldiers. Sgt. Suerth credits his survival to lying in the snow which staunched his bleeding. Evacuated to an aid station and then to England, Sgt. Suerth endured 18 months of painful convalescence. During his visit, Col. Shames honored Sgt. Suerth's valor noting he was awarded France's Croix de Guerre for heroism. Sgt. Suerth returned to the United States and became a successful engineer. He and his wife Moonah raised a family of nine children. They moved to Minnesota in 1968.
In the months after Sgt. Suerth was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge which amounted to a desperate and failed offensive for the German Army, the 101st Airborne and American and Allied armies crossed the Rhine and penetrated into the heart of Germany. The Third Reich disintegrated in the east and west.
In January 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz as well as other death camps in Poland. In April, 1945, 2nd. Lt's Shames' platoon came across Landsberg prison and then Dachau concentration camp. An appalling stench of death hung over both places. Hundreds of emaciated bodies were found at Landsberg. Thousands of emaciated bodies were found at Dachau. The survivors in both camps were "skeletons dressed in rags" according to Lt. Shames. Sixty seven years would pass before he could speak of the horrors he witnessed at these camps – although he saw the scenes each night in his dreams. The commemoration at the Minnesota State Capitol marked only the second time that Lt. Shames spoke about what he saw – likely as the first American officer to see it – and as a Jewish officer.
During the remembrance event, Rep. Paul Thissen, speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, asserted, "These are the darkest days in our shared history and it reminds me of the progress we have made and the work we have yet to do."
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie related, "It takes putting our lives on the line in public service to make sure this never happens again!"
The JCRC in partnership with the Minnesota National Guard is proud to have brought together the liberators and liberated.
Today we celebrate and commemorate the 150th anniversary of the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Following the battle of Antietam – in which the First Minnesota Regiment played a critical role – President Abraham Lincoln believed this first significant battlefield victory for the Union provided the military edge to warn the Confederacy he would free its black slaves by executive order by year's end, 1862.
I wrote about the Emancipation Proclamation in greater depth in September 2012. Click here to view the text of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Emancipation Proclamation precipitated a chain reaction of historical events which continues to this day. The trajectory of civil rights in the United States has been upward ever since, but also punctuated by failures, persistent racism and significant, multi-dimensional gaps between blacks and whites in our country.
One hundred and twelve years passed from the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson upholding "separate but equal" to the election of Barack Obama representing both a remarkable American evolution and the slow and excruciating march of progress over parts of three centuries.
Keeping in mind these twin historical pillars, the Emancipation Proclamation committee under the leadership of the Minnesota African American Museum and Roxanne Givens convened a Minnesota commemoration on December 20 in the Governor's Reception Room at the Minnesota State Capitol.
Great thanks are owed to Governor Mark Dayton, Lt. Governor Yvonne Prettner Solon and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and their staffs for their assistance and participation. Governor Dayton issued a proclamation recognizing January 1, 2013, as Emancipation Proclamation Remembrance Day. Governor Quie also honored the commemoration with his participation.
Secretary of State Ritchie offered the following thoughts about the event:
1. The event represented three threads woven together – historical, personal and political – the three organizations that focused on the Emancipation Proclamation – the Civil War Commemoration Task Force, the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) brought these elements together into a powerful reminder of those who've come before us and the unfinished work in front of us.
2. This time of the year is one where our hearts are open to healing, appreciation, generosity – on many fronts. The event on December 20th was at the same time that Dakota and others were on their way to Mankato as part of the 8th annual ride for Healing and Reconciliation – part of the remembering and acknowledging the violence and destruction of the Dakota-US War that also took place 150 years ago.
3. The event on December 20th was a reminder that the arc of justice does bend towards justice, but that it takes human hands to make this happen – the hands of Lincoln to write the Emancipation Proclamation, the hands of Governor Quie's grandfather, a sharpshooter in the MN First Volunteers and soldier in the victory at Antietam that gave Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Proclamation, the hands of the Civil War veterans who created Minnesota’s beautiful State Capitol as a reminder of the sacrifices of those who fought and died to end slavery in our nation and the artists who painted the powerful murals that line the Governor’s Parlor that so powerfully remind us of what that sacrifice looked and felt like to those who came before us.
The setting for the commemoration was keenly appropriate. All the participants spoke under the beautiful and sweeping murals depicting the gallantry of Minnesota civil war regiments at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Missionary Ridge. (TPT’s "Almanac" recently covered the Civil War commission and commemoration.)
The speakers-noted below – all articulated important themes associated with the Emancipation Proclamation. A theme often not properly recognized was the role of Minnesota's African American community fighting for the Union in the Civil War and the history of Minnesota's African American churches in the early days of Minnesota. Local historian David Riehle noted the following important historical facts:
1. The record shows 104 African Americans (male, most historians presume) enlisted in the Union Army's U.S. Colored Troops.
2. The 1860 Census shows 259 people of African descent in Minnesota. So 40% of the African American population enlisted, and obviously a much greater percentage of the males.
3. Under the direction of the MAAM Emancipation Proclamation Commemoration Project, a search has begun for Minnesota graves of African American veterans of the Civil War.
Governor Quie, grandson of Civil War veteran – wounded at Antietam – Halvor Quie traced the Emancipation Proclamation from the most sacred principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution to their distillation in, at last, the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. The Governor discussed the struggle converting the intent of the amendments into rights for African Americans throughout the country. He praised Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr. for having the vision for civil rights legislation protecting the vote and providing for opportunity in public accommodations, employment and housing and the fortitude to see it through the United States Senate in 1964 and 1965. The Governor then challenged in Minnesota to address among the nation's most yawning achievement gap for African Americans and Hispanics.
An artistic highlight of the commemoration was Lou Bellamy's recitation of the poem “Colored Soldiers” by Paul Laurance Dunbar celebrating the role of Union African American soldiers in the triumph of the north in the Civil War.
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Wilhelmina M. Wright reminded us of the necessity of the relentless pursuit of justice for all as integral to the advance of civil rights.
Artika Tyner, Director of Diversity at the University of St. Thomas, reflected upon the role and history of African American churches in Minnesota in connection with the Emancipation Proclamation and as fulcrums of civic engagement. On December 31, 1862, the African American community gathered together awaiting the freedom for millions of black slaves that would arrive at midnight. This became known as “Freedom's Eve.” Two Minnesota African American churches were founded in 1863: Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul and St. James A.M.E. in Minneapolis. A Watch Night service for Freedom's Eve became a New Year’s Eve tradition at the Twin Cities A.M.E. churches. Tonight, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation Watch Night observances will be held at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church from 9:00 p.m. to midnight. GFMC is located at 2600 East 38th Street in Minneapolis. St. James AME church in Minneapolis founded in 1863, which originated the concept of Watch Night in Minneapolis, will be joining Greater Friendship for a joint service. Pilgrim Baptist Church will hold a Watch Night Service from 10:00 p.m. to midnight (732 West Central Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55104).
Great thanks are owed to Judge LaJune Lange for her leadership as emcee of the commemoration as well as Prof. Peter Rachleff, Mary Franklin, Tsidra Jones, Coventry Cowens, Sharon Garth, Chris Taylor, Laura Zelle and Susie Greenberg of the Minnesota African American Museum's Emancipation Proclamation Committee. The Emancipation Proclamation Committee also appreciated the participation of the Minnesota National Guard led by Col. Eric Ahlness, Diversity Program Manager. Thank you also to the Bremer Foundation whose generosity supports the efforts of the JCRC in this commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation. This included two days of programming in October with Freedom Rider Ernest “Rip” Patton in partnership with St. Cloud State University, the Minnesota National Guard, Fairview Alternative High School in Roseville, and the Guthrie Theatre. The 1961 Freedom Rider campaign of desegregation occurred shortly before the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and was a milestone in the trajectory of civil rights springing from this most momentous executive order of Abraham Lincoln.