WASHINGTON (Jan. 6)
For decades, Christmas wreaths have decorated many of the Jewish graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
Well-intentioned volunteers lean thousands of donated wreaths on headstones throughout the nation’s premier cemetery for veterans.
And each year for the past few years, a couple of days before Christmas, Ken Poch removes the wreaths from the Jewish graves.
Until Poch began researching the Jewish history at Arlington, no one knew the location or number of Jewish graves there.
Attention was focused recently on the Jewish dead at Arlington when M. Larry Lawrence, the former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, was disinterred and moved after it was learned that he fabricated his war record.
Lawrence, who was buried at Arlington for almost two years, has also been removed from Poch’s list.
While Lawrence might have gained some notoriety, the other Jewish veterans buried there remain largely unknown to tourists at the popular northern Virginia destination.
Poch, a conference planner who has made it his hobby — and mission — to chronicle the Jews at the cemetery, has cataloged the location and history of the 2,500 Jews buried at Arlington.
While some of the cemetery’s Jewish residents are well known, most of their stories have never been told.
Poch, who twice crisscrossed the cemetery’s 250,000 graves looking for Jewish veterans, frequently returns to the cemetery with interested Jewish tourists.
For Poch, who served two years in non-active, stateside duty in the 1960s, this has become his duty.
“There’s a myth that Jews don’t fight and don’t serve,” he said during a recent visit to the cemetery.
“I want to know who these people were,” he said, pointing to one of many graves he has cataloged.
After the Brooklyn, N.Y., native moved to Virginia a few years ago, Poch read “Where They Lie: Someone Should Say Kaddish,” a book about the Jewish Civil War dead buried at Arlington.
So Poch took the advice of the title and returned to the cemetery. In the Jewish custom, he placed stones on the headstones of the five Jews buried there who died in the Civil War fighting for the Union. He also said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer cited as a memorial to the dead.
Rich with Jewish history, the cemetery includes:
Moses Ezekiel, who fought for the Confederacy and is buried next to a sculpture he designed in memory of the Confederate soldiers. Ezekiel is known as one of the great 19th-century sculptors and was knighted by the King of Italy and Kaiser of Germany;
Six Jewish nurses, including Lt. Col. Rae Landy, who served in the U.S. Army during both world wars. In 1913, she went to Palestine and helped develop the clinic that later became Hadassah Hospital;
Two rabbis, including Rabbi Joshua Goldberg, a Navy captain who served in World War I as an infantryman, received five battle ribbons and participated in the first Maccabiah Games in 1912;
Rabbi Bertram Korn, a Navy rear admiral and the first Jewish chaplain to achieve such a high rank in the armed forces;
Pfc. Robert Cohen, who was taken prisoner of war by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge. He was murdered in the woods along with 85 other Americans;
Two brothers, Prv. Marvin Kaminsky and Pfc. Maynard Kaminsky, who were killed three months apart during World War II;
Adm. Hyman Rickover, the father of the modern Navy;
Maj. Gen. Julius Ochs Adler, who served in both world wars and later as the general manager of The New York Times;
Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Freedman, Army special forces. The first American killed in Somalia in 1993, he was nicknamed “Super Jew”;
Judith Resnick, mission specialist on the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded during its 1986 launch.
Also buried there was a key non-Jewish influence on the fighting forces that led to the Israel Defense Force. Maj. Gen. Orde Charles Wingate, of the British Army, trained early Jewish settlers in Palestine in defensive battle techniques. Although British, he was killed on a U.S. plane in Burma and buried with the 12 others who were on board the place.
The highest-ranking Jew buried at Arlington is Adm. Jeremy Michael Boorda, chief of naval operations, who killed himself in 1996 amid revelations that he had worn medals to which he was not entitled. While his headstone bears a Jewish star, a miniature Christmas tree decorated his grave in December.
Poch acknowledges that his list is not scientific.
Only after World War I were people allowed to place a religious symbol on their headstones. Jewish graves are frequently marked with a Star of David, but not all Jewish graves are marked.
Poch looks up the service history of veterans with Jewish- sounding names whose graves don’t have a Jewish marker.
If someone did not list a religion on their form or chose not to reveal their religion during their life, Poch said he does not force them to in death.
But his best information, he says, comes when people hear about his project.
Families regularly contact him with information. Rabbis who perform Jewish funerals at the cemetery encourage the families to share stories of their loved ones with Poch.
For Poch, it’s a duty. “You’re only dead if you’re forgotten,” he said.