Col. (Ret.) Erwin Allen Burtnick, one of the founding members of Jewish War Veterans of the USA’s Maryland department, died on Saturday, Nov. 25, at the age of 80. He leaves behind a legacy of service to Maryland’s community of Jewish veterans, police officers and first responders.
Burtnick and his wife, Janet, lived in Pikesville and were members of the Jewish Uniformed Service Association-Chabad synagogue. They had two children — Jason, an aerospace engineer, and Scott, an industrial psychologist.
“[Erwin] knew millions of people,” Janet Burtnick said of her late husband. “We’ve been getting so many phone calls and condolences. He touched the lives of so many people.”
Born and raised in Baltimore, Col. Burtnick attended Baltimore City College and Johns Hopkins University. He first joined the army in 1965, undergoing basic training at Fort Knox and graduating from the Maryland National Guard Officer Candidate School. He would go on to spend 37 years as an active-duty soldier in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve, receiving 24 decorations and honors for his work.
It was while serving in the military that he and Janet Burtnick first met, she recalls.
“A friend of mine introduced us, and we started talking. We went out, we went to a museum. I served him Turkish coffee. He didn’t call again for three months, so I worried he thought I was trying to poison him,” she quipped.
The two of them married in 1990, a few years after they first met, and remained married for 33 years.
Col. Burtnick may have been most well-known in the Baltimore Jewish community for his work at JUSA, where he was a founding member, a commander and part of its advisory board.
“He was not only a friend, but a mentor to me and many other veterans,” said Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum, JUSA’s founder and director. “Day and night, he was dedicated to helping veterans, whether he was helping them get benefits or navigate the Department of Veteran Affairs. He helped hundreds of veterans over the years.”
In addition, Burtnick boasted the title of the longest-serving member in the country of the Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve in the Department of Defense. He was first appointed to ESGR in 1973 and was later honored with the ESGR Lifetime Achievement Award for his work, as well as the highly prestigious James M. Roche Spirit of Volunteerism Award.
Tenenbaum spoke of a recent experience he had working with Burtnick shortly before he died. They had been informed of the death of a local veteran, but his burial had been delayed by 40 days. Due to Jewish law’s insistence that Jewish people be buried as soon as possible, Burtnick and Tenenbaum worked with the Department of Veteran Affairs to reduce the delay from 40 days to four.
“It was a unique mitzvah he did, working in veterans’ cemeteries,” Tenenbaum said. “Helping people with burials and funerals is a great mitzvah, because the people you are helping cannot pay you back. It’s one of the purest mitzvot because you are doing it with the knowledge that there will never be a reward or a thank you.”
Burtnick was well-known in the community for ensuring that American flags were placed on the graves of Jewish veterans on Veterans Day every year. He and Tenenbaum were engaged in a several-year-long effort to expand the Jewish veterans’ section at the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery.
“There’s a lot of red tape, but I will be definitely doubling my efforts in his memory,” Tenenbaum said.
Janet Burtnick noted that there has been a great outpouring of community support for her and her family following her husband’s death, with many remembering how he helped them and the veterans in their lives in the past.
“He worked tirelessly in everything he did,” wrote Dr. Robert Kroopnick of Pikesville on Burtnick’s memorial book, hosted on the Sol Levinson & Bros. website. Kroopnick and Burtnick were members of the same Baltimore City College graduating class and fellow members of JUSA. “[He] never said no to anyone who needed help in benefits. What a great person. He will be sorely missed.”
Burtnick is survived by wife Janet Burtnick (née Conn); children Scott K. (Ain) Burtnick and Jason E. Burtnick; and brother Norton M. Burtnick. He was predeceased by parents Emily and Sidney Burtnick.
Contributions may be sent to Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, Friends of the Jewish Chapel at the United States Naval Academy, Boys Town Jerusalem or JUSA.