The Forgotten Fallen: Jewish Soldiers Left Off Original Bladensburg Cross

The American Humanist Association’s upcoming Supreme Court case is just around the corner! On February 27, AHA Senior Counsel Monica Miller will present oral arguments at the high court arguing that a giant Christian cross—dedicated to all war veterans and standing on government land—is unconstitutional.

As one of the steps in the process of getting to that date, many of our allies submitted amicus curiae (or friend-of-the-court) briefs to the Supreme Court in support of our position. Sarah M. Shalf, counsel of record for Emory Law School, wrote about some of the many brave men excluded from the original dedication of the Bladensburg cross in an amicus brief submitted on behalf of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and sixteen high-ranking military officials and veterans. What follows are her descriptions of these men and their service.

“The Bladensburg Cross stands as a memorial to religious-based exclusion, as the cross excludes Jewish servicemen from the greater Washington and Baltimore area. That this cross stands on public land carries with it the impermissible and dangerous perception that a state government condones religious preference and endorses religious-based exclusion.

“The forty-nine names listed on the memorial exclude Jewish servicemen from the region who gave their lives during World War I. Some of the Jewish servicemen served in the same regiment as the men whose names are listed on the cross.

“Sgt. Isaac ‘Ike‘ Morris, a Jewish serviceman, was killed in action in France and later eulogized in the Baltimore Sun by his friend Ben Blumenthal, yet his name is missing from the forty-nine listed on the cross. In a letter to the Sun’s editor, Blumenthal stated that Sgt. Morris was ‘brave to the core, intensely patriotic, and a sincere and loyal friend of humanity, it became his great privilege to put his heart and soul in America’s call for men to make the world a better place to live.’

“Lieutenant Merrill Rosenfeld, a Baltimore native who served in the same regiment as many of the names memorialized on the cross, was killed in a charge against an enemy machine gun nest. Although he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his heroic efforts during World War I, his name was left off the cross.

“Another absent name is that of PFC Zadoc Morton Katz, a Baltimore native who was shot and killed after leading reinforcements into battle at Montfaucon. In a letter, PFC Katz wrote about how the Jewish servicemen celebrated Rosh Hashanah without any provisions or services from the military:

I don’t think any of the 250 Jewish boys assembled in the “Y” hut last Saturday morning to celebrate ‘Rosh Hashana’ could have been more profoundly moved than I. With no one to officiate but the boys themselves, and no complete prayer book of the service, the orthodox services concluded about 11 A.M. with the singing of ‘American’, and I reported to my platoon for duty, feeling a pride in my co-religionists and a surety that after the war the epithet ‘Coward’ cannot be hurled at us.

“Private Louis Balser, who served in Company D of the 115th Infantry – the same regiment whose chaplain presided over the declaration ceremony at the cross – died in October 1918 in France. Information about his service comes from letters his brother published in local newspapers, seeking information about Pvt. Balser’s whereabouts. Although many of his Christian comrades from the 115th Infantry unit were honored on the cross, his name was left off.

“The history of the Bladensburg cross clearly shows that the memorial was intended only for Christian servicemen, and conspicuously excluded Jewish servicemen, many of whom served alongside those who were included among the forty-nine men listed on the cross. If this memorial is permitted to stand on government land, it will stand not as a monument for all veterans, as the petitioners argue it does in modern day, but as a monument of government-sponsored religious exclusion.”

The AHA’s #HonorThemAll social media campaign highlights non-Christian veterans who have been ignored and veterans of all faiths who do not believe that a cross is an appropriate war memorial. Learn more about this campaign here.