Fewer than 2% of the American soldiers who fought in World War II are still alive today, and Frank Bressler is one of them.
Bressler, 97, lives in Pikesville with his wife, whom he’s been married to for more than 70 years. He was 20 years old when he was drafted into the Army. He served as a combat medic and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. According to the History Channel, it was the costliest battle the United States ever fought in; there were more than 100,000 American casualties.
“Four-hundred-thousand guys died in World War II,” Bressler said. “Four hundred thousand. That’s a lot of guys, and those that came home were very blessed to be able to come back alive and well.”
For his service, Bressler received the Bronze Star Medal, and France awarded him the Legion of Honor as a Chevalier. He is also a past commander of Post 167 of the Jewish War Veterans, an organization that, among other things, serves as a reminder of Jewish contributions to the military.
Jewish people have been part of the American military since colonial days and have fought in every American war. Those alive today have served from WWII, through the conflicts of the Cold War, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A few decades after Bressler’s experience on the front lines, Robert Chertkof decided he wanted to join in order to give back to his country. He was inspired by his family history; his grandfather had immigrated from Russia and found a better life in the U.S.
“There was no opportunity in Russia, and there were always pogroms,” said Chertkof, a member of Beth El Congregation of Baltimore. “He escaped with another family.”
Chertkof served in the Army Corp of Engineers from 1962-1964. During that time, he spent six months in Indonesia, as part of a precursor to the Vietnam War, to train the locals to be an effective army. The Army Corp of Engineers brought in equipment like bulldozers and Bailey bridges.
Being there, he said, was culture shock for a young man from Pikesville.
“That was 58 years ago,” Chertkof said. “It was very much a third-world country, with lack of medical care, no dental care almost at all.”
Nowadays, Jews make up 0.4% of the military, according to a 2019 Congressional Research Service report.
Rabbi Zevi Lowenberg is currently a chaplain in the Air Force. He grew up going to Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Krieger Schechter Day School and was inspired to serve because of 9/11. He also has a family history of military service: His grandfather served in WWII, and his great-uncle served in Korea.
“9/11 had a major impact on my life,” he said. “I was 8 years old on 9/11. I still remember the classroom at Schechter I was sitting in. Yet, I realized I could play on the playground that day. I could still go to friends’ houses. At some point, I realized I could do all of that because there were men and women protecting that right, protecting me, and I wanted to do that for the next generation.”
He joined ROTC when he went to college. At field training after his first year of college, he met a military chaplain and realized that’s how he wanted to serve. After graduating college, he attended Jewish Theological Seminary and was ordained last May. He joined active duty last summer.
“In our community, and in many Jewish communities at large, [joining the military is] something that’s simply not done on the same scale as other communities,” Lowenberg said. Yet, “Jews certainly serve.”