May 28, 2024
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May 28, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Our legacies are generated by the stories of our lives. Some of us record those stories on our own through our writings or oral histories. But most of us depend on our families and friends to recount those stories and to create the legacies we leave behind. The days of shiva are often venues for the telling of those stories as the life history of the deceased is revealed and recounted by family members and shiva visitors alike. But what happens when a person’s life is tragically cut short and the telling of those stories is more than the family can bear? How is it possible, under those circumstances, to create a legacy and to ensure that what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l describes as a next chapter, “some legacy of kindness that made life better for at least someone on earth,” is actually written?

Several years ago, my husband, Joseph Rotenberg, z”l, wrote an article for The Jewish Link entitled “In Memoriam: Heroes of the Sky.” Part of that article recounted the story of my uncle, Jerome Lesser, z”l, a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, whose plane was lost over the Pacific Ocean when he was 26 years old. He recounted the stories we knew of Jerome’s life, but they were few in number, scant in detail and offered limited insight into Jerome’s character. While a photo of Jerome in uniform sat on an end table in my grandparents’ living room throughout my childhood, my grandparents and my mother never spoke of the son and brother they had lost. It was undoubtedly too painful, and, taking our cue from them, we never asked questions. Apparently, when the telegram arrived that informed my grandparents that Jerome was missing in action, my grandparents walked together into their bedroom and closed the door. They came out some time later, and nothing was ever said again. Several years later, when Jerome was officially declared dead, there was no shiva. While memories of his life undoubtedly lingered in the minds and hearts of his family, his legacy was absent because the stories that would have created it were not shared. Our knowledge of his personality, talents, values and interpersonal relationships remained limited. The rituals were followed. My brother was named for Jerome and so is one of my grandchildren. There is a stone in the cemetery with his name on it, next to the graves of his parents and siblings. Family members continue to recite Kaddish for him on his yahrzeit. Still, aside from my husband’s efforts, Jerome’s legacy remained sparse. That critical next chapter remained unwritten.

Incredibly, over the past two years, all that has changed thanks to the determination, creativity and talents of Dr. Russell Low, a retired fourth-generation Chinese-American radiologist from San Diego, whose uncle had been lost on the same plane as Jerome. Dr. Low is his family’s historian, and, among his many projects, he set out to write the story of the all-American crew that went missing in action on January 22, 1943. Nearly 80 years after his death, Jerome was finally going to have the legacy he so richly deserved.

Our journey with Russell Low was exciting and gratifying. He had managed to track down the families of each of the 10 crew members on that fateful flight, and led us on a path of discovery that culminated with a Zoom reunion of members of those families just a few weeks ago. In our determination to help him write the stories of these young men, we re-examined the boxes of personal belongings that my mother had left behind, and discovered a treasure of letters that Jerome had written to my mother and grandmother while he was in the army. The stories he shared in those letters were invaluable in Dr. Low’s efforts to piece together the dynamics of the crew and to reconstruct Jerome’s personality.

Emails flowed back and forth. One of the great mysteries of the process surrounded a woman named Ruth whom Jerome mentioned time and again in his letters home and whom he seemed to be quite taken with. We found a picture labeled “Ruth Hirshfield, Jerome’s fiancee” among my mother’s belongings, but my older cousin insisted she knew nothing of Jerome having a fiancee and found it odd that her father would never have mentioned it had it been so. The mysterious Ruth haunted me and Dr. Low, as well. After hours of research online, we were finally able to track down the family of a Ruth Hirshfield, originally from New York and now residing in California. Could this be the family of Jerome’s Ruth? Thanks to the internet, we were able to contact Ruth’s niece, Donna. She could not corroborate that we had the right family. Ruth had passed away a few years ago, and Donna knew nothing of Ruth ever having been engaged during the war. Ruth was apparently married for only a short time afterwards and left no children behind with whom she might have shared stories of her early life. The mystery continued until Donna produced a photo of a serviceman that Ruth had kept in a photo album that was now in Donna’s possession. Could this be Jerome? It was impossible for us to tell from the photo until miraculously, and in a moment of absolute wonderment, my brother discovered a copy of that very same picture among my mother’s belongings. We had indeed found Ruth of Jerome’s letters, but why she lost all contact with my mom’s family after his passing and why her very existence was shrouded in mystery is troubling and perplexing. Like Jerome, Ruth left behind a legacy filled with question marks. Remarkably and quite serendipitously, Dr. Low’s efforts to establish the story of the final months of Jerome’s life revealed precious details of Ruth’s life, as well.

Dr. Low set out to tell the story of 10 young men from diverse backgrounds who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. He wanted to be sure that their stories would be shared and memorialized, and that their diversity and unlikely camaraderie would be recognized and applauded. Perhaps the most poignant, heartbreaking, but inspirational fact uncovered by Dr. Low is that on January 22, 1943, this all-American crew had actually completed their quota of missions and was due for a break. The men were asked to volunteer for the reconnaissance flight that ultimately claimed their lives, and the understanding was that they all had to agree to undertake the mission if it was to happen. One by one, out of a sense of duty to their country and out of a sense of loyalty and commitment to the united crew they had become, each of these 10 young men affirmed his willingness to fly what was to be their final mission. 

As I contemplate the fate of the all-American crew, I am reminded of the Haftarah we read on Tisha B’Av from sefer Yeshayahu where Hashem promises Yad VaShem, “a place of honor and renown, which is better than sons and daughters” to those who follow His ways. Dr Low, by means of this labor of love that he created, bestowed on these 10 men the honor and renown they deserved and had surely been denied until now. He established a legacy that will live after them. For that, my family, the family of Jerome Lesser, Yaakov ben Aryeh Leib and Miriam, z”l, is forever grateful.

Signed copies of “The All-American Crew” can be obtained from the author, who donates all money to a nursing student scholarship. For details contact Russ Low by email at [email protected].

By Barbara Rotenberg

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