November 10, 2021

Those Who Served: Honoring Greater MetroWest Veterans

Jill Hershorin Archivist and Curator, Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest NJ

Veterans Day is a time for us to pay our respects to those who have served. On this day, we stand united in respect for our veterans. When first celebrated as Armistice Day, the day marked the end of World War I, formally recognized on the “11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month” in 1918. Today we continue to celebrate the day recognizing the original tie with November 11 and, in 1954, the name was changed to Veterans Day to account for all veterans in all wars.

Each year, the Jewish Historical Society (JHS) of Greater MetroWest highlights those in our community who have either served or remained stateside but contributed to the war effort. We’re fortunate to have several collections that help tell the story of these folks and service during conflicts across the globe. This year I’d like to share with you the story of service of Lester Bornstein z”l.

Bornstein was an 18-year-old rifleman in the Army’s Company B 168th Engineer Combat Battalion, which carried out a series of combat engineering duties at Normandy in Ardennes, and in Central Europe and the Rhineland. In a 2004 article for the New Jersey Jewish News, journalist Robert Weiner wrote, “Being Jewish did play a surprising role in keeping the young Bornstein alive.”

When Bornstein and his bazooka team partner, Jimmy Hill, were posted in a foxhole in the woods outside Saint-Vith just before the Battle of the Bulge, they found themselves in the path of an approaching German tank. The tank barreled closer, firing at a tank destroyer 75 yards behind the two men and slicing down tree limbs that provided instant camouflage for their foxhole. The two managed to load and fire their bazooka, and the tank came to a grinding halt. “We heard German voices in the woods and knew they were looking for us,” Bornstein recalled. “I knew Yiddish from listening to my mother tell stories when I was young, so I could understand some of what the soldiers were saying. “Just as we were about to run, I heard the command ‘Komm zuirueck!’ and I knew we were safe. The soldiers had been ordered to ‘come back.’ Had I not known what the command was, we would have run from cover and been killed.”

Fast forward 56 years, Lester and Jimmy had the opportunity to meet one of the German soldiers who was firing at them that day. It was a monumental reunion and tells us of Lester and Jimmy’s ability to show compassion and kindness to someone who was once an enemy.

When he returned home, Bornstein earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Boston University and a Master of Public Health from Yale University in 1955. He worked in hospital administration, retiring as president of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in 1996. Lester Bornstein died in his home on December 5, 2020.

The JHS’s Robert R. Max World War II Collections contain materials from those in the military and on the home front, donated by Dinah Selvin, Seymour Litwack, Max Saslow, Les Pruce, Jerome Fine, and so many others whose contributions were immeasurable to the war effort. Items include ration books, medals and patches, Winged Victory World War II newsletters, special decrees, motions and orders, and other memorabilia from members of our community. If you’d like to access any of these collections, contact me at [email protected].

Please join Federation on Thursday, November 18 at 7 p.m. for a program in commemoration of Kristallnacht and Veterans Day featuring a documentary of Bob Max’s z”l, story of his fight for survival in a Nazi slave labor camp produced by the nonprofit Backpacks for Life. Following the documentary will be a panel discussion about the harrowing experiences of soldiers then and now. For more information and to register, click here.