We've wrapped up another successful Jewish American Heritage Month, again showing our role as the source for community history!
You may have seen Arthur Welsh, the first American Jewish aviator, featured in the "Flashbacks" comic in the Sunday Washington Post. Our efforts led to this feature and the Society was mentioned in the final strip! You can now view the entire six-part series.
Executive Director Laura Apelbaum and board member Diane Wattenberg were featured in The Federation's Jewish Food Experience blog -- read the post about the winning National Spelling Bee word: knaidel.
We partnered again this year with the National Archives on a very special program featuring Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein.
We were also featured in Moment Magazine (download article) and we were out in the community a great deal:
French researcher Jean Paul Pitou ended an 18-year quest last month when he visited the gravesite of Captain John Wilner at Adas Israel Cemetery in Anacostia. Pitou had been studying the 83rd Infantry Division and its role following the Normandy invasion in saving the town of Saint-Briac-sur-Mer in Brittany. Just months after the town was liberated in August, 1944, the people of St. Briac erected a large stone monument in memory of the three American soldiers who were killed there. Captain John Wilner of Washington, D.C., was among those listed. But Wilner's name was misspelled on the French monument as 'Woelner', a mistake that went unnoticed until 1994 when an American veteran, in town to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day, noticed that the name Woelner did not appear in the historical records of the 83rd Division. It took years of searching before Pitou and fellow researchers Gille Billion and Antoine Nosier correctly identified the soldier who gave his life liberating St. Briac as Captain John Wilner, the company commander of the 709th Tank Battalion that supported the 83rd Infantry. With that information in hand, they traced his burial place to the Adas Israel cemetery in Anacostia.
The story began in Washington, D.C., in 1897, when Joseph Wilner, a recent immigrant from Vilna, Poland, opened a tailor shop on 6th Street, NW. While his business prospered, he and his wife Ida raised four sons: Bernard, Morton, Paul, and John. Joseph Wilner quickly became a prominent leader in the Jewish community, founding the Jewish Community Center in 1920s and serving as president of Adas Israel Congregation for 25 years. When World War II broke out, all four sons left Washington to serve their country. Just six weeks after Bernard died from an illness, the Wilners were notified of John's death in battle. Killed on August 15, 1944, while on a reconnaissance patrol in preparation for the attack to liberate the town, Captain John Wilner posthumously received the Bronze Star for his actions.
As part of Pitou's plans to attend the 83rd Infantry Division's 66th Reunion in Nashville, Tennessee this month, he contacted Glenn Easton, Executive Director of Adas Israel Congregation, for information about Wilner's final resting place. Easton quickly reached out to the extended Wilner family. John Wilner's daughter Cathy, who never met her father, made an emotional phone call to Pitou from her home in Switzerland. Neither she nor the rest of the Wilner family had known of the monument to her father or the town's annual memorial service. Weeks later, Pitou and Easton joined Joel Wind of the Jewish Historical Society and other members of the Wilner family at the Adas Israel cemetery on a warm July afternoon.
At the graveside, Pitou shared his research into the battle's history and gave family members an engraved stone and some soil from St. Briac. Later, Pitou visited the archives of the Jewish Historical Society to view documents and photographs of the Wilner family.
And the story will continue next year, when the village of St. Briac will correct the historical record by adding a plaque with Captain John Wilner's name to the monument on August 15, 2013.
These words from Captain John Wilner's letter to his daughter and his brother's children was found among his papers after his death.
More than anything, I value a cause, an ideal, which is decent and clean, representing relative happiness and insuring the validity of a few of the finer thing which life can offer... I am willing to die fighting for these things; I am happy to fight for them...
Last week, a crowd recited the Kaddish in memory of an unlikely aviation pioneer—a Jewish immigrant from Russia named Arthur L. Welsh. The occasion was the centennial of his tragic death at the College Park Airfield. Among those gathered were great grand-nieces and nephews of the little-known pioneering aviator. On June 11, 1912, Welsh was killed while testing a Wright-designed plane for military use.
The notion of a Jewish immigrant penetrating the Wright brothers’ inner circle seems improbable. Yet Welsh distinguished himself as one of the earliest and most respected pilots in our country. Unlike the Wright brothers, whose ancestors arrived in Massachusetts just 20 years after the Pilgrims, Al Welsh’s story began as one typical of a working class Jewish immigrant.
America’s first Jewish airman was born Laibel Willcher in Russia, where he lived until he came to this country with his parents as a boy. The family settled in Philadelphia. Shortly after Laibel's father died, his mother remarried.
In 1898, the family moved to Washington’s 4 ½ Street, Southwest, neighborhood—home to a small enclave of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the last century. This was the same neighborhood where another young Jewish immigrant was growing up—Asa Yoelson, a cantor's son who later changed his name to Al Jolson.
Like so many other Jewish families, Laibel and his family lived above the grocery store that his mother ran. His stepfather worked as a cutter in a tailor shop.
When Laibel joined the Navy in 1901, he gave his name as Arthur L. Welsh—perhaps to escape anti-Semitism. After his honorable discharge, Welsh returned to Washington and worked as a bookkeeper. He attended meetings of the Young Zionist Union, where he met his future bride, Anna Harmel. Their 1907 wedding was the first held at the then-Orthodox Adas Israel’s second synagogue at 6th and I Streets.
When the Wright brothers came to Fort Myer in 1908 and 1909, Al Welsh was among the throng who watched in fascination as the famous brothers tested their military flier.
Welsh chased and realized his dream of flying with the Wright brothers. Though he did not have the mechanical knowledge required, he embarked on a letter-writing campaign to gain the attention of the Wrights. After initial rejection, Welsh traveled to Dayton, Ohio, to appeal to the Wrights in person.
His persistence eventually overcame his lack of qualifications. Welsh trained directly under Orville Wright and became a trusted and skilled pilot—a notable achievement given the difficulties of flying a Wright plane. This young Jewish immigrant also gave lessons to the first military pilots, including the famed Henry "Hap" Arnold, later a five-star general and U.S. Army Air Chief of Staff during World War II.
The funeral service, held at the Harmel family home, was delayed so Orville Wright and his sister Katherine would have time to arrive from Dayton. Orville served as a pallbearer, along with Hap Arnold and several of Welsh’s Jewish friends from the neighborhood. His coffin was draped in a silken tallis. The Yiddish newspaper The Forward reported, “All present were in tears including Mr. Orville Wright and his sister who were doing all they could to console the wife and mother of the deceased.”
Welsh was buried in the Adas Israel Cemetery in Anacostia. Welsh's wife Anna died in 1925 “of a broken heart,” as the family remembered. Their daughter, just two years old at the time of her father’s death, grew up in Southwest and later moved to London.
In the early 1930s, Welsh’s sister, Clara Wiseman, campaigned to gain public recognition for her brother. She urged the military to name an airfield in his honor, as they had done for Welsh’s copilot. But since Welsh had flown as a civilian, no such honor was forthcoming.
Today, perhaps her efforts have been vindicated. Last week the College Park Aviation Museum unveiled a new interpretive sign telling Welsh's story at the edge of the airfield where this young Jewish immigrant turned pioneer pilot lost his life a century ago.
This coming June will mark the centennial of Arthur Welsh's death in an airplane crash.
The story of Welsh, a Russian Jewish immigrant who settled in Washington, is one of our favorites. Likely after seeing an airplane demonstration at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1908, he asked the Wright Brothers to hire him. After he persisted, they eventually agreed. He became one of their most trusted pilots and instructors, training several pilots (including "Hap" Arnold, head of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II) and demonstrating the new technology of flight until his untimely death when his Wright Flyer C crashed at College Park airfield on June 11, 1912.
To commemorate the centennial of his death, we are collaborating with the College Park Aviation Museum to create a small exhibition and hold a special program. As part of the prep, we recently met with Paul Glenshaw, the exhibition's researcher and designer, and Tiffany Davis, Collection Curator at the Museum. We ventured together to pay our respects to Welsh at Southeast Washington's Adas Israel Cemetery.
Interested in learning more about this remarkable Jewish Washingtonian? Visit the online exhibition we created several years ago, and come join us at the program in June!
Congressman Turner -- recently elected from a New York district that is one-third Jewish -- had contacted our friends at the Jewish Federations of North America about showing him the monument. When the staff members at JFNA had scheduling conflicts, they called on us.
It was touching to explain the story of the effort to create the monument, both to the Congressman and the VOA crew. The picture here shows Milo, the VOA cameraman, and Congressman Turner in front of the memorial. Thanks to JFNA for letting me be a part of this visit.
Check out the VOA story, including a quote from me, here.