He heard the news over 70 years ago, but Joe Yonis can remember the moment like it was yesterday.
Yonis, who grew up in Peabody and now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., was coming home from a Friday night at the movies with his friends. As he was crossing Main Street in downtown Peabody, a friend ran toward him.
“He grabbed my hand and said, ‘Joe, you gotta get home right away – your brother was killed,’” said Yonis, in reference to Joe’s brother Ralph, who at age 19 died in the Philippines just three months before the end of World War II. “I was at a complete loss. I felt the loss very deeply.”
On Memorial Day, Americans honor the memories of soldiers who gave their lives in service to this country. Jews have been fighting for the United States since before the Revolutionary War, so for many American Jews, Memorial Day means remembering family members who left them too soon.
Ralph Yonis was one of roughly half a million American Jews who fought in World War II. He grew up in Peabody, the son of Turkish immigrants who owned a bar on Main Street and were members of the Sephardic Congregation Tifereth Israel.
Yonis was athletic, popular, and a good student. After he graduated Peabody High School in 1943, he took some time off to work in a leather factory. Joe thinks his brother was drafted in the summer of 1944, and deployed to the Pacific early in 1945.
Three other Yonis brothers served in World War II. According to Joe (who himself was stationed in Germany during the Korean War), his brother Jack was on a ship patrolling the Philippines while Ralph was stationed there. The two brothers might have been able to meet, but Ralph was shipped to a different location just a day or two before Jack arrived. A few days later on May 22, 1945, Ralph was killed either defending an airstrip or during a battle on a highway on the island of Mindanao. Yonis was awarded a Purple Heart for his bravery.
Yonis’s younger sister, Doris Hershoff, was just eight-years-old when the telegram arrived announcing her older brother had died. After the tragic news, Peabody’s tight-knit Sephardic community showed up in full force for the Yonis family, but Ralph’s untimely death still took a lasting toll.
“My mother at the time had four sons fighting in World War II … how does a mother sleep when she has four sons fighting in a war at the same time?” said Hershoff, who still lives in Peabody and attends Congregation Tifereth Israel. “It was heartbreaking. I saw such a change in her. She died at age 59 from what we were told was a rare virus … but I say she died of a broken heart.”
Hershoff and her husband Elliot, the president at Congregation Tifereth Israel, convinced Peabody town officials to place a plaque honoring Ralph at the corner of Main Street and Pierpont Street, near Tifereth Israel and the site of the Yonis family’s old home. Last May, Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt, Veterans Service Officer Steve Patten, and over 100 others witnessed the dedication of Private Ralph Yonis Corner.
Another Massachusetts public space is dedicated to a Jewish soldier who died serving this country. Benjamin Rutstein was born in 1895 and grew up in Boston’s West End to newly arrived Russian immigrant parents. After a few years as a Boston paperboy, he moved to Birmingham, Ala., to work at an older brother’s store.
When America joined World War I, Rutstein enlisted, and joined the ranks of roughly 225,000 American Jews. Rutstein’s legs were blown off by German shelling, and he died near the Franco-German border in July 1918. He is interred at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France for U.S. veterans who died in World War I. According to his great-nephew Mark Levenson, a traveling war correspondent at the time wrote of a “young Hebrew, Benjamin Rutstein. With both legs mangled by shrapnel … he called for paper and pencil and wrote a letter to his mother … He told her that he was dying but it was alright. He was dying like a brave man and for his country.”
A square in the West End was named in Rutstein’s honor, but moved to Staniford St. in the 1960s when the city of Boston redeveloped the neighborhood. Levenson wanted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of both his great-uncle’s death, and the 100th birthday of his uncle David Levenson of Framingham, who was Rutstein’s nephew and fought in World War II. Last July, at the Benjamin H. Rutstein Square at the intersection of Staniford Street and O’Connell Way in Boston, not far from the Vilna Shul where Rutstein’s family belonged, numerous officials honored Rutstein’s service.
In a quieter spot up north is a memorial to the eight Marbleheaders who died in the Vietnam War. The only Jew among them was Gerald Isaacson.
After graduating from Marblehead High School in 1963, Isaacson went to Boston University but decided to take a year off to work for a family friend in the shoe business. In 1965, during his year off, Isaacson was drafted. While hundreds of thousands of Jews fought in the World Wars, just 30,000 served in Vietnam.
“Once that got set in motion there was no stopping it,” said Elaine Cohen, Isaacson’s younger sister. “My family tried to get him out of it – they didn’t want him to go.”
Isaacson was shipped for basic training to Fort Devens in the towns of Ayer and Shirley before embarking on a tour in Vietnam that would last just one month. In 1966, he drowned carrying heavy equipment across a river.
Early one November morning, Cohen was sitting in her Revere apartment when she got a call telling her to come to her parents’ house immediately.
About 1,000 people showed up for Isaacson’s funeral. His parents, Joe and Marjorie Isaacson, never spoke about him again because it brought them too much pain.
“We never ever talked about it … I think that was not the right way to do it, but that’s the way they handled it. They just buried themselves in their work,” said Cohen, who suspects her parents felt guilty for not insisting their son go back to school to avoid the draft.
This Memorial Day, there are many ways to remember fallen Jews, whether they’re remembered quietly at home or in a grand ceremony with local officials.
“I don’t want anyone from the World War I era, or the World War II era, or the Korean era, or the Vietnam era, to ever be forgotten,” said Joe Yonis. “They served our country, and there’s a purpose for it all: for us to live in a free and open society.”