Antisemitism is currently on the rise across the United States. Almost every community with a Jewish population is noticing a spike in hateful speech, actions, and organizations. Because of this, it is more important now than ever to celebrate the special Jewish men and women in our communities, and remind them that they are important, and their lives have mattered. The Y JCC in Plainview did just that on Thursday, August 17, when they partnered with the Jewish War Veterans to honor two members of the community; Tessie (Tess) Shirley Pierce Garber and Murray Steinberg.
The pair are both over 100 years old. Between them is almost 203 years of history of the Jewish experience in America.
Garber’s brothers enlisted in the military at the outbreak of WWII. She recalled feeling left out. There was no reason, in her opinion, why women should not have the opportunity for military service. Garber was a trailblazer for women’s inclusion in the armed forces, swimming against the tide to promote the importance of women’s involvement in the war effort.
Garber joined the Women’s Reserve (WAVES) as one of only eight females in November of 1943. The Cleveland native traveled to Camp Lejeune, a military base in North Carolina for training. “The women Marines were the only ones taking the same training as the men,” she noted. Other branches of the military had focused training for the different sexes, but at the time, the Marines did not. Everyone was expected to commit to the same regimen.
Garber was assigned to the Signal Corps, with whom she traveled to Washington D.C. to teletype. She was responsible for passing on secure information, as well as notices of those who passed away in active combat. “I spent most of my time in the service… It was not a pleasant job. I had to notify people of deaths, wounds, being taken prisoner. It was really heartbreaking… But all these things were a part of what I agreed to do. Whatever they needed me to do, I would do.”
Being not only a woman, but also Jewish, it was unclear what Garber’s experiences were going to be upon entering the service. “I was very lucky,” she said. “The first day I was there, I came back from my duties and took my tie off. I was wearing a Jewish star — my mother never let me leave home without it — and as I walked down to get my mail, a [woman] reached out and grabbed my arm. She said, ‘I see you’re one of the tribe.’ Which confused me because I didn’t know what tribe she was talking about.” That is how Garber met Eleanor, a lifelong friend who introduced her to other Jewish women serving at the base.
Altogether, they formed a small but close cluster of half a dozen, and spent a lot of time together, attending events at the local temples. “It was a good adventure for me. I learned a lot from these girls,” she said. “All of them had been, with the exception of myself and one other girl from Denver, were all from New York. I certainly never dreamed I’d one day become one of those New Yorkers,” she joked.
Steinberg was in the 240th combatants air battalion. He spent six months in basic training at Fort Riley before being sent overseas. His first trip was on a converted cargo ship which took 19 days. “We stopped off at a small island off the coast of Australia called Good Enough Island,” he laughed. Steinberg was stationed at several islands, including New Guinea and Mindoro. At the beginning of the invasion of the Philippines , he recalls with vivid clarity the Kamikaze pilots flying overhead. “One was coming right at us, at sea level… I was on the south deck, watching them bombard the shore,” he said. “[A plane] was coming straight at us, and about 1000 yards away, he pulled his nose up.” Steinberg knew the telltale signs of a bomb about to be dropped. About 60 feet overhead, he watched the plane crash into his ship.
After the war, Steinberg built airstrips as a part of his engineering obligations, before finally being discharged. Throughout his time overseas, he collected scrap metal from Japanese planes, using them to build plane models. He sent these to the U.S. in boxes, with a note that if he not make it back, the planes should be sent to his family.
It is not lost on Steinberg and Garber how Antisemitism has fluctuated since they fought against it in the 1940s. Earlier this summer, a hate group stuffed Antisemitic flyers into neighborhood mailboxes in Plainview. There has also been an increase in vandalism of Jewish places of worship, community centers, and schools. For those who have been around long enough, the telltale warnings are clear. We cannot forget that Jewish men and women also call America home, and have done a lot to protect and serve their country. In the near future, we will not have centenarians around who can remind us of the slippery slope of ostracizing others, and leading with hate instead of compassion.