By Rabbi John Allan Franken
My uncle, Pvt. Allan C. Franken, succumbed to face wounds in an army field hospital on May 24, 1945. He was just 20 years old.
Allan was my father’s only sibling, and my middle name was given in his memory. I suppose that’s why I grew up wanting to know as much as I could about this uncle I never knew, the father of the cousins I never had, the one with a radiant smile who out of patriotic duty had transferred from the air corps to the infantry in order to do “something worthwhile” for the war effort.
One thing my father told me I found especially upsetting. In the military cemetery where Allan had been buried, his grave was marked with a Latin Cross.
If this had upset my father, he never showed it. He seemed to have become reconciled to it, perhaps because he thought nothing could be done about it anyway. So my father told himself and his family the story that Allan converted during his army service.
Even so, I could never make sense of it. After all, Allan and my father spent much of their childhoods in the New Haven Jewish Home for Children where they attended Hebrew school daily and Shabbat services weekly, celebrated their b’nai mitzvah, and maintained strong ties with their mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins (several of them refugees from Hitler). So, I reasoned, if there was a conversion, it must have been for the convenient purpose of avoiding anti-Semitism in the army service or concealing his identity if, God forbid, he fell into enemy hands.
Then, in the spring of 2019, the phone rang. On the line was Rabbi David Ellenson, who, as president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, had ordained me 16 years before. David explained that he was calling on behalf of his old friend Rabbi Jacob (“J.J.”) Schacter, a university professor at Yeshiva University and a fellow historian. A few years earlier, J.J. was standing inside a Normandy cemetery and wondering why there were relatively few Star of David headstones since it was well-known that Jews represented 2.7% (about 11,000) of all U.S. casualties. He mentioned this to his friend Shalom Lamm, who immediately began to investigate.
What they found was astonishing: Hundreds of Jewish war dead had mistakenly been buried under the Latin Cross. David suggested that Uncle Allan was one of them.
I countered weakly with the family lore that somehow Allan had converted, but David explained that the research showed conclusively that Allan had lived and died a Jew. There was no indication of any conversion whatsoever and, crucially, his Jewish status upon death had been confirmed by the Jewish Welfare Board. The strong likelihood was that it was a clerical mistake, committed innocently during the massive effort of burying 17,184 soldiers in the Manila American Military Cemetery.
A few weeks later, thanks to the extraordinary assistance of Lamm and Schacter’s team, I filed an application for a headstone change for Pvt. Allan C. Franken with the American Battle Monuments Commission. Five months later, the application was approved.
On Feb. 12, I was privileged to attend the headstone changing ceremony for my uncle and four other Jewish servicemen. Remarks were made by Schacter, Shalom Lamm, the American Battle Monuments Commission authorities, the American and Israeli ambassadors to the Philippines, and representatives of all five families. It was one of the most moving
and gratifying moments of my life.
Before his headstone change, I chose to address my uncle directly, declaring this moment the funeral he never had, these words the eulogy he never received, the memorial prayer the words that had never been prayed — all by the nephew he had never met. Together it amounted to the restoration of his good name and the redemption of his Jewish identity. It was not just a chesed shel emet (kindness shown to the dead by the living), but a chesed v’emet (a kindness and a repair of the truth). As I said Kaddish and put a stone on the new Star of David headstone, I felt a sensation that Allan — 75 years after his death — at last could rest in peace.
This Sunday, May 24, marks the 75th anniversary of my uncle’s tragic and untimely death. May his memory, together with those of all of his brothers and sisters who fell in service of our country, be ever for a blessing.
John Alan Franken is rabbi of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace. He is a member of the advisory board of Operation Benjamin, whose mission is to preserve the memories of
American-Jewish men and women who fell in World War II.