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Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Great War

Some time ago, I issued a post about my uncle Sammy, who died in World War II. Recently, while rummaging through the garage, I found some papers and old photos my mother had given me before she died. They included things she had kept for her stepfather, my Papa Hymie.
Papa Hymie had emigrated as a young boy from Kiev, Russia with his parents, Aaron & Rose, his brothers Ben and Joe and a sister, His brother, Joe, had enlisted in the army and died during World War I. His mother, Rose, had written to find out what happened to him. His commanding officer had written her a letter detailing how Joe Boriskin, 24, had died.
The letter, dated 12 December 1918, is very fragile, three typed pages bound by permanent staples. The body of the letter reads as follows:

Barry, Wainright, Thacher & Symmers
59 Wall Street, New York
16 December 1919
To: Mrs. Rose Boriskin:

Dear Mrs. Boriskin,

Your letter of 25 November 1919, addressed to Major General (now colonel) Robert Alexander, formerly the Commanding General of the 77th Division, has been forwarded to me for reply because your son Corporal Joseph H. Boriskin was in my battalion, and as corporal in command of the battalion runners, was attached to my battalion headquarters.

As the major commanding the second battalion, 306th Infantry, A.E.F. from 22 June to 24 October 1918, I came to know your son well, and had I known where to address you, I should have written to you before, to express my high opinion and appreciation of his courage and the fine spirit with which he always responded to every call of duty.

As Corporal of the Battalion Runners, who, as you probably know, were the men who carried messages and orders to the various officers of the battalion and also regimental headquarters and elsewhere, he occupied an important position and had direct charge and responsibility over more than forty men.

Corporal Boriskin’s efficient work and high courage came especially under my personal observation during the exhausting advance and attack through the Argonne Forest from 26 September until 16 October, when your son fell, mortally wounded in a most gallant effort to bring into our lines for medical treatment, a wounded German officer, who had fallen on the slope of Hill 182, immediately north of the little town of St. Juvin, which was captured by my battalion on the afternoon of 14 October 1918.
For this brave service, your son received the following citation,

"Cpl. Joseph H. Boriskin, No. 1,702,058, Headquarters Company, 306th Inf., who on October 14, volunteered to carry a wounded German officer to a Frrst Aid Station, accomplishing his mission under a heavy machine gun fire, as a result of which he himself was seriously wounded."

On the 15th of October, I saw your son, together with other wounded men, being carried on a stretcher along the road leading from St. Juvin to the dressing station. I could then see that he ws very seriously wounded and I gave orders that he should receive the best care possible and be included among the men who, because they were badly wounded, were entitled to receive the first attention; he was carefully covered with a warm blanket and was made as comfortable as possible while being carried to the doctors.

A few days afterwards I was ordered to a hospital in Paris of an operation, and while there was, without previous warning, ordered home and consequently carried with me from the front no addresses or other material which would have enabled me to write to the parents or families of my officers or men who had been killed or wounded.

I, therefore, welcome this opportunity of writing to you about your son. You are indeed entitled to be proud of him for he always performed his duty bravely and well, set an admirable example to the men under him, and rightly enjoyed the confidence and respect of all officers with whom he came in contact. I can well appreciate what his loss means to you. At the same time, nothing can take away from you your just pride in him and the consciousness of the high privilege which you have had in sharing in the greatest gift which any man can make to his country, namely, his life.

I hope some day that I may see you and I shall be glad to talk over with you the service of your son.
Will you accept from me, as a slight tribute of my appreciation of your son, the accompanying copy of the History of the 77th Division.

On page 176 of this history, your son’s name appears among many officers and men cited for gallantry in action.

I enclose four copies of your son’s citation, and also three additional copies of this letter in order that, if you so desire, you may send them to certain of the societies of which your so was a member, and to which you refer in your letter to General Alexander.
Very sincerely yours,
Archibald G. Thacher
(Formerly Major 306th Inf., 77th Div., A.E.F. Commanding 2nd Battalion 306th Inf.)
Archibald Thacher came from a prominent Boston and New York family. After the war, he was a respected Wall Street lawyer specializing in Admiralty Law, appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court several times in his career.
The 77th Division, which also saw action in World War II, and is still active, was called the "Empire State Division," made up of mostly New Yorkers, now based in Queens.
Long ago, I’d read a book about World War I by Laurence Stallings, who had fought and was wounded in the Great War. He later became a novelist, writing the book on which the silent movie "The Great Parade" was based. He also wrote "What Price Glory," another famous story / movie about the war. His non-fiction book, published in 1963, was called "The Doughboys." Stallings writes:
"The 77th was called the Melting Pot Division, New York City’s own. It spoke 42 languages and among its gamblers could be found Chinese from Mott Street playing fantan, Jewish boys from Allen Street in stuss games, Italian boys from east of Union Square playing piquet, Germans from Yorkville on the Upper East Side. There were Turks who spoke a little Hebrew and Hebrews who spoke a bit of Arabic. Many could speak only Brooklyn English; their accent was that of the Don Marquis ballad that ended: ‘Prince, when you cal on a Brooklyn goil, Say Poil for Pearl, and erl for oil.’
"There were some Kentucky and Tennessee immigrants to New York City who referred to a dud shell as a 'possum playin’ daid.' He notes that others who received citations during their battles had names like 'Sing Kee' and 'Abraham Hirschkovitz'."
Referring to the battle near the town of St. Juvin in October 1918, Stallings writes:
"When the Meuse-Argonne operation was launched September 26, the American First Army’s objective on the extreme left of its line had been to seize the citadel of Grandpr√© east of the confluence of the Aire and Aisne rivers, and make a junction with Gouroud’s French Army moving up on the left of the forest. The 77th Division’s Bowery Backwoodsmen finally got a toehold at Grandpre’s approaches on October 9-10 as it emerged from the Argonne blinding in unaccustomed sunlight. The key to Grandpre was Saint-Juvin, an ugly piece of fieldworks on a hillside that had resisted the best efforts of the infantry of the tired 82nd Division on the right.
"General Alexander ordered an assault on Saint-Juvin from both flanks by the 77th Division in battalion strengths on October 13. The left flank battalion began first and was hard at it and suffering when the leading element of the other battalion wove through the forest to begin its attack. That element consisted of Captain Julius Ochs Adler, of the New York Times family, his personal Chauchat gunner, and the ammunition carrier. Adler came upon a left flank guard of the 82nd’s units still in the line to assist the refreshed division moving up again, the guard consisting of a major with three Hotchkiss teams. When Adler told him that he and his two friends were now going to capture the deafening town on the hill beyond, the major was dubious but said that he would come up behind him with his Hotchkiss gunners..."
Adler’s citation, for which he was awarded a D.S.C., and later, Croix de Guerre and Purple Heart, reads as follows:

"Accompanied by another officer, Major Adler was supervising the work of clearing the enemy from St. Juvin where they suddenly came upon a party of the enemy numbering 150. Firing on the enemy with his pistol, Major Adler ran toward the party, calling on them to surrender. His bravery and good marksmanship resulted in the capture of 50 Germans, and the remainder fled."
After the war, Adler returned to the NY Times, and when his uncle died, became the managing editor. Stallings writes: "It was difficult in later years for anyone invited to lunch in the paneled room high above Times Square to see in the quiet, self-effacing Major Adler a soldier with the effrontery of a con man and the ferocity of a bear." Adler later served as the commanding officer the 77th Division in World War II.
Checking the internet further, I came upon a website titled: "History of the 306th Infantry" by Julius Ochs Adler (1935). In a section subbed The Meuse - Argonne, I found the following:

"One of the pathetic sights as the units moved toward Fleville from St. Juvin was Corporal Boriskin of the 306th Infantry, who was being carried on a stretcher to a support dressing station; he had been mortally wounded in crawling out under heavy fire the day before to rescue and give first aid to, a wounded German major lying in front of the American lines on the slopes of Hill 182. It was one among many fine acts done that day and fully justifies the statement contained in General Alexander's Memoirs: 'I wrote a letter of commendation to the Commanding General)153rd Brigade, more especially for the brigade and specifically for the 306th Infantry, the unit which had done the work and paid the price therefor.'"
Joe and Papa Hymie’s mother, Rose, must have been a persistent woman, judging from the hints in Major Thacher’s letter. In 1930, she apparently sailed to France to see her son’s grave as a "Gold Star Mother." The U.S. government paid for ships full of the mothers of fallen heroes.
I’ve included on this post a remarkably kind and considerate letter she received, which even suggests appropriate clothing for the trip and expresses the kind of sentiments that would be hard to find in today’s harsher attitudes.
The Gold Star Pilgrimages also have an interesting history. American War Mothers, first organized in 1917, lobbied Congress regarding the problem that many families could not afford to travel to see their loved ones' burial sites, which were scattered in several cemetaries in France and Belgium built after the Great War. Newly elected Congressman Fiorello La Guardia introduced the first bill in 1919 but it took ten years for Congress to agree to pay for the pilgrimages for mothers or widows.

From 1930 to 1933, the Government paid all costs to sail on luxury liners to France. The mothers were provided flowers and their photos were taken at the gravesite.
Ironically, the times demanded that African American mothers sail separately from others, and many commented that they received better treatment from the French than from their own country. Another controversy was the cost, which some critics challenged because of the Great Depression. But generally, the project was considered a great success, providing succor to thousands of families. It was praised as a rare occasion when the Government spent money and effort to relieve private grief and suffering.

My Papa Hymie lived to about 87 years old, dying peacefully in his sleep. I was in my twenties at the time and had always admired him as the best of my many intertwined relatives, though there was no "blood" connection. He had married my mother's mother (Anna), after her father had abandoned or been thrown out of the house for reasons my mother barely suggested. Hymie had brought order to the impoverished little family, bought shoes for my mother to wear to school and tried to discipline her brother.

He and Anna had a daughter, Ruthie, who died of illness in her early teens. I remember that his sister taught school in Philadelphia and his brother, Ben, worked for the US. Mint in Denver.

Papa Hymie told wonderful tales that began in the middle and ended before the finish involving his adventures. He'd seen McKinley, San Francisco after the 1906 'quake, knew Dempsey, Lepke, had worked in the Perth Amboy shipyard during WW II, introduced me to a variety of Runyonesque figures --- Max the barber and Harry the captain. He'd been shot when young and stabbed by a mugger when very old. He'd chased the mugger down the stairs to the street, still carrying a loaf of bread in his bleeding hand before he realized that, as a man in his 70's, catching the thug might be his last adventure. My mom, hearing the tale, convinced him to migrate to L.A. where he spent his last years in warmth and comfort, walking our dog to the park, where secretaries on lunch breaks bent to pet the dog, keeping Papa Hymie smiling at cleavage. "I still look," he told me, "but I can't remember why."

In his 80's, he could thrill to an infant's grasp of his finger, and find amazement at a dog's ability to 'tell' him when he wanted a walk. I don't remember any time when Papa Hymie spoke about his brother Joe.


  1. Wow. My shockingly vivid memory of Papa Hymie is of the day of his death, with my dad breaking the news to me in Nana & Al's 6th Street apartment, sitting on his lap on that round green chair just to the right of the front door. Unfortunately, that trauma blocked out all earlier direct memories of the man, although like the corona of the sun during an eclipse, the warmth of his love persists to this day in my memories.

    A truly heroic man. And now we know that heroism ran deep through his family. Thanks for the amazing and moving writing and research - a real treasure.

  2. Thanks, Jem. Of course you know that you were the infant that Papa Hymie found so amazing. We all miss him, but our memories of him are still so vivid that he continues to be a presence for all of us who smile at the thought. You are right about the revelation these findings reveal about the roots of his dignified decency and sturdiness. Mort

  3. Mr. Borenstein:
    Thank you for the information contained in your [post]. I’ve had the opportunity to read the details about your relative. Interestingly we’ve received recent inquiries about the wartime experience of Jewish Americans – somewhat underrepresented, I think, in our historical collections – and this is timely and very useful to our understanding of WWI. I will save it for future reference.
    We’ve had such wonderful national response from the Turner Classic Movies film tribute. Thanks again for your interest in the National World War I Museum.
    Eli Paul
    Vice President of Museum Programs.

  4. [From Jem]:
    Hey, you may have just made History!
    Funny that he immediately pigeonholed us and our story as being about "Jewish Americans," and of interest for that reason primarily.
    Always refreshing to be re-marginalized... (And I spent all these years becoming white - all apparently down the tubes now.)

  5. Fascinating post, for many reasons...

    In defense of Mr. Eli Paul: although I understand that you may be half-kidding when you speak of being "re-marginalized," I believe that it's extremely important to tell the world about the Jews in the war. The thing is, it's all the anti-Semites of the world who have been persistently perpetuating the myth of Jews as non-fighters, as connivers, as averse to all things physical. I don't have to tell you. In Russia especially, the role of Jews in the WWII (The Great Patriotic War) was denied, and Jews were mocked as those who "served" their military duty in Kazakhstan. Well, you know that they have evacuated women and children to Kazakhstan (including my mother and grandmother) during the war. My grandfather served as a captain in the army during the WWII.


  6. Rina, thanks for that comment. Jem's response to Eli Paul's was, I think, reflective of the sensitivity we have about Jewish stereotypes, especially regarding the Holocaust. I was taken by the story of the Bielski brothers (as dramatized in last year's film, "Defiance". As your memories show, the history of Jews in WW II is far more complex than the stereotypical image.

  7. Mort, actually I agree with Jem, we've been pigeonholed on both sides of the Iron curtain:)I am also hypersensitive to being defined. And I just wanted to emphasize the original intent which, of course, is about the importance of history being told.