Jewish Soldiers and Sailors, The Great War

Text by Susan Cummings-Lawrence

Images from Maine Historical Society, Norway Historical Society, Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh, and many individual collections.

Eastern Argus, 1918

Eastern Argus, 1918

Article describing stopover in Portland of Jewish Legion recruits on their way to Canada, 1918

Numerous Jewish men from Maine served in World War I, some Jewish women worked as nurses and in munitions factories, and many other Jewish soldiers were stationed in the Portland area.

The Great War, as it was known at the time, began in 1914. The United States entered the war in 1917, about eighteen months before it ended.

Three battalions of Jewish volunteers-the 38th to 40th battalions of the Royal Fusiliers-were known as the Jewish Legion. More than 8,000 American Jews joined this group raised by the British Army in 1917, in part to free Palestine from Turkish rule.

In 1918, a group of these Jewish soldiers stopped briefly in Portland on their way to Canada for military training. A short article in the Eastern Argus on May 3, 1918 noted that:

"A monster reception was tendered to the two carloads of Jewish soldiers recently enlisted in the British Army for service in Palestine, at the Union Station last night by the Hebrews of this City, who formed or procession at the Newbury Street Synagogue and headed by Chief Marshal Morris Sacknoff and Fort Williams band and with over a hundred Jewish soldiers now located in Portland harbor acting as escorts of honor, marched to the Union Station, where over 2,000 Hebrews had gathered to honor the men of their race who were on their way to aid the Allies by duty in their native land."

Morris Shapiro, Jewish Legion Soldier, ca. 1918

Morris Shapiro, Jewish Legion Soldier, ca. 1918

Father of former Maine State Treasurer, Samuel Shapiro

Even though the troops arrived at 11 p.m., they "were welcomed with cheers and speeches of an impromptu nature, following which every soldier was given a box lunch and furnished with other necessary things for their comfort. After a wait of fifteen minutes the train carrying the soldier boys continued on its journey amidst the rousing cheers of the multitude."

In June 1918, a train containing 300 recruits for the Jewish Legion stopped in Bangor on the way from New York City to Halifax, Nova Scotia. One of its recruits was David Ben-Gurion, the future leader of what many years later became the country of Israel.

The Bangor Daily News reported that "almost the entire Jewish community marched from State Street down Exchange Street to the railroad station accompanied by a band. 'Hatikvah' was sung as the train came in and almost every Jewish woman brought with her sandwiches, pastry or some sort of refreshments." A Bangor Zionist activist named Myer Minsky organized the event.

Those Who Gave Their Lives: World War I

Jewish Legion button, ca. 1918, with inscription "Kadimah" meaning "Forward!"

Jewish Legion button, ca. 1918, with inscription "Kadimah" meaning "Forward!"

While at least eleven Jewish Mainers died in the service during World War I, information is not available about all of them. Families have scattered around the country, materials have been lost and stories never recorded in any way.

Some families report that the death of the young son was so painful that it was never discussed. Most were not married and thus there were no children and grandchildren to carry on the stories.

The men generally were so young when they were killed that they did not have careers, civic involvements, or synagogue or social club memberships.

Peter Klain and the Klain Family

Norway High School yearbook, dedication page, Peter Klain, 1917

Norway High School yearbook, dedication page, Peter Klain, 1917

Seven children of the Klain family of Norway – Jacob Astor, Samuel, Esther, Dora, Zora, Abraham, and Peter – served in WWI.

Their parents, Morris and Rose Rebecca, moved from Portland to Norway in 1900; Peter was born in Portland in 1898 and buried there in Mt. Sinai Cemetery in 1917.

Peter Klain, one of seven Klain children who served in WWI, 1917

Peter Klain, one of seven Klain children who served in WWI, 1917

Private Peter W. Klain, nineteen years old, member of Company D, was killed while on guard duty at the Boston & Maine double track bridge in Biddeford.

He left school in the spring of his senior year, intending to return to Norway High School on furlough in June to graduate. He had been captain of the school basketball team and excelled in all sports. He was also a talented musician, as was his sister Elizabeth, who went on to become a well-known music teacher in the Norway area. He sang in the Universalist choir and was an enthusiastic participant in "various entertainments of a dramatic or musical nature."

The Advertiser Democrat also reported on May 25, 1917, "He was a favorite in the company and the life at any party. His school record was of the best and as a student he ranked high, besides being a true friend to instructors and classmates.

Clean in athletics and sportsmanlike at all times, his memory will forever live with those who came to know him best, through this avenue that will make all free and equal."

Jacob Cousins

Image of Jacob Cousins on memorial

Image of Jacob Cousins on memorial

Jacob Cousins was a twenty-four-year-old metals broker from Portland when he enlisted in the Army on September 20, 1917. He had been married to Frances Gerber for one week. He never saw his wife again.

Cousins, then a corporal, was killed in October 1918, north of the Sommerance-St. Juvin Road in France, less than a year after enlistment.

The son of Moses I. and Fannie Shapiro Cousins, he graduated from North School, Portland High School and Wentworth Institute, Boston. Moses Cousins changed the family name from Koslovsky to "Cousins."

A citation in his records reads, "When the lieutenant leading his platoon was killed, Corporal Cousins immediately assumed command, preventing it from wavering in its advance, and led it with coolness and bravery until he paid his supreme sacrifice." (4)

He was not awarded his Purple Heart, Silver Star and other decorations until seventy years later in November 1988, at the instigation of his niece, Faye Gordon, and her son Steven, working with Massachusetts Congressman, Barney Frank.

The ceremony took place at Shaarey Tphiloh Synagogue in Portland. The Cousins Post of the Jewish War Veterans had about 100 members, most having served in WWII. Many of them were in attendance.

Architectural drawing of the reconfigured Jacob Cousins Memorial

Architectural drawing of the reconfigured Jacob Cousins Memorial

sponsored by Friends of the Eastern Promenade, 2015

When the Jacobs Cousins Post was installed in 1936, the ceremony took place in the Chamber of Commerce Hall in Portland, led by William J. Berman of Boston, national commander-in-chief. The entertainment consisted of Ann Sletnick on piano and vocal solos by William Benjamin Epstein, baritone, leader of the Etz Chaim Synagogue Choir. William Glovsky and David Simonds assisted. Esta Gerber and Sam Cousins, sister and brother of Jacob Cousins, were honored guests.

One of the few known images of Cousins is from the bronze bas-relief on the memorial dedicated in his honor on the Eastern Promenade.

Friends of the Eastern Promenade began a plan in 2015 to renew the Ft. Allen Park area of the Promenade and the nearby Jacob Cousins Memorial. The reconfiguration of the memorial has been conceptualized to make it more visible and accessible and the surrounding area more attractive.

John Archibald Harrisburg

John Harrisburg, his brother Alexander and fellow Marines, ca. 1917

John Harrisburg, his brother Alexander and fellow Marines, ca. 1917

Private John Harrisburg had served for one year and three months in the United States Marines when he was killed at age nineteen.

His parents were told of his death by the Lewiston Journal. According to a Journal article published the week of John's death, July 19, 1918, he "wrote frequent letters home filled with thrilling stories, told in a modest way, of the encounters he and his comrades had with the Huns."

Harrisburg wrote, "They still kept up a heavy fire with machine guns, but the boys lay under the ledge smoking cigarettes and telling stories as tho they were in a theater some place a thousand miles away. It was a fine example of bravery and grit, believe me!...They have nicknamed us the Devil Dogs and they rightly deserve such a name for they surely made the Germans think they were the devils." (5)

Beside his father, Abraham, Harrisburg was survived by two brothers, Alexander and Harry, and two sisters, Frances Stein and Sarah Rubinoff.

Louis Osherowitz and Albert Edelstein

Title page from Holy Scriptures for Jewish Soldiers and Sailors

Title page from Holy Scriptures for Jewish Soldiers and Sailors

Item Contributed by
Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh

The Osherowitz-Edelstein Post of the JWV-USA, once located in Biddeford, was dedicated in honor of Louis Osherowitz, of the contemporary Osher family, and Albert Edelstein.

Even though they were known and admired so greatly in their day that the Jewish War Veterans Post was established in their names, no images or information have been found.

Samuel and Kenneth Klein

The Kleins were twins from Fort Kent who served in the Army and are buried together in Tferith Israel Cemetery in Bangor. They were killed two years apart, Kenneth in 1918 and Samuel in Argonne in 1920.

No other information about their lives has been found. The Martin-Klein American Legion Post #133 in Fort Kent, founded in 1923, was named for Kenneth.

4. Portland Sunday Telegram. Portland, ME, September 22, 1935.
5. Letter to his parents from John Harrisburg, June 30, 1918. Quoted in Lewiston Sun-Journal, July 1918.