Faith, patriotism send metro Atlantans to Normandy this Memorial Day

Many Jewish WWII soldiers killed overseas wrongly given Christian burials; a nonprofit called Operation Benjamin works to correct the mistake.

Credit: American battle monuments commission

Credit: American battle monuments commission

Dunwoody resident Bill Loventhal and his wife, Rita, were getting ready to take a cruise on the Seine in France last summer when they had the opportunity to visit the military cemetery in Normandy, on the cliffs above Omaha Beach.

To Loventhal’s surprise, it was the most emotionally moving part of the trip.

He discovered, only on that visit, that a cousin, once removed, who died on the battlefields in France, was among the 9,387 Americans buried in the Normandy American Cemetery. When he arrived at the cemetery he found that the staff had prepared a folder full of information about 1st Lt. Lawrence Samuel Craig, an Infantry officer.

Credit: Operation Benjamin

Credit: Operation Benjamin

Bill and Rita visited Lt. Craig’s grave, in Plot E, Row 15, Grave 6, and said Kaddish, a traditional prayer that Jews recite while mourning the dead.

“The only thing that concerned me about this experience was seeing a cross instead of a star,” said Loventhal.

The graves of an estimated 700 Jewish soldiers buried in military cemeteries around the world are marked with a Christian cross instead of a Star of David. A small nonprofit called Operation Benjamin is working to put appropriate markers on those graves, with the help and approval of family members and the cooperation of the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees 26 permanent American military cemeteries abroad and at home.

Credit: Operation Benjamin

Credit: Operation Benjamin

On Memorial Day, Operation Benjamin will replace the headstones on the graves of three World War II soldiers buried in Normandy and Brittany, including the grave of Lt. Craig.

Bill and Rita Loventhal will be there for the rededication ceremony, along with Craig’s niece (and Bill’s second cousin) Lauren Lundgren.

This Memorial Day will be particularly poignant for the families of those three soldiers. On a holiday devoted to the memory of those who gave their lives fighting for their country, it is fitting and right that these Americans are finally remembered for who they really were.

“It’s righting an historic wrong,” said Loventhal.

Most, if not all, of the inappropriate markers were placed as a result of error, rather than any purposeful mischaracterization, according to the Operation Benjamin website.

“We have every reason to believe that these errors were made inadvertently,” the site reads. “Through the fog of war and tragedy, we have found that paperwork was ignored, mistakes were made, or families were otherwise unable to communicate their marker preferences to the government.”

Craig was born in Chicago on August 17, 1915, to Lawrence Samuel Cone and Frances Schreiber. A member of a Reform congregation, he was confirmed at the Chicago Sinai Congregation as Lawrence Samuel Cone. He attended the University of Chicago and was president of his class, said Loventhal. His friends called him “Laurie.”

By the time he had registered for the Selective Service in 1940, he had changed his last name from Cone to Craig. His brother, Richard “Dick” Cone, also changed his last name to Craig.

Loventhal feels sure that Craig changed his name “because of the anti-Semitism back in the ‘30s.” Craig also had his dogtag imprinted with a “P,” for “Protestant.” Soldiers were given three options for their dogtags: “C” for Catholic, “P” for Protestant and “H” for “Hebrew,” or Jewish.

Annie Loventhal, Bill’s sister, said Jewish soldiers often purposefully hid their backgrounds. “They knew they were going to Europe,” she said. “If they were captured, they knew what would happen to them.”

Credit: Courtesy of Bill Loventhal

Credit: Courtesy of Bill Loventhal

According to research by Operation Benjamin, Craig reported for service in Chicago on Jan. 20, 1941. He was assigned to the 121st Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division, and shipped out on Dec. 5, 1943.

He trained in Ireland for the invasion of Europe, and landed on Utah Beach on July 4, 1944. Advancing southeast, his company assembled near La Haye-du-Puits, and by July 12 had arrived at Laulne, France.

There his company was met with an overwhelming counterattack by German forces, and Lt. Craig was killed in action. Like most battlefield casualties, he was reburied several times. The cemetery at Normandy was dedicated in 1956 and he reached his final resting place there.

Upon his return from France last summer, Bill Loventhal was contacted by Shalom Lamm, founder of Operation Benjamin, who had independently researched Lt. Craig’s background and determined that his marker was an expression of the wrong faith.

The fact that both men were looking into the history of Lt. Lawrence Samuel Craig was simply a remarkable coincidence, said Loventhal.

Annie Loventhal, also of Dunwoody, is unable to attend the ceremony in France when her cousin’s new headstone will be put in place, but she is overjoyed that the event is taking place.

“My feelings are that my dad and Dick (Craig) and my grandmother — his aunt — and his parents, would be so proud, if they were alive today, if they knew what we were doing.”