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Veteran's forgotten legacy: Family, museum at odds over display of WWI awards

Elsie Roth shows off a book that describes her father's heroism during World War I, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Mary Delach Leonard | 2009 St. Louis Beacon photo

If you visit the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington this Veterans Day, chances are you will not see the Distinguished Service Cross awarded to Army Sgt. William Shemin for heroism in France during World War I.

Shemin was awarded the medal -- the nation's second-highest military decoration -- for leaping from a trench into heavy machine gun and rifle fire to carry three wounded comrades to safety.

Also not on display: Shemin's Purple Heart or, for that matter, any of the other service medals and patches awarded for his service with Gen. John Pershing's American Expeditionary Force.

You also won't see:

  • Shemin's uniform overcoat, his jodhpurs, leg wrappings, sleeping bag or pup tent.
  • The baseball shoes he wore as a member of the Army baseball team.
  • His scrapbook, military documents or a Passover greeting card.

Shemin's daugher, Elsie Roth who lives in a rural area west of St. Louis, says the majority of the 47 items she donated to the museum are rarely if ever exhibited, despite oral promises she says staffers made to her in 1991.
Here are the items you will see from Sgt. William Shemin: a French canteen and a program from the Folies-Bergere, a Parisian nightclub.

According to a September letter from the museum to Roth's son, Joseph Roth, those are the only two items currently on display from the Shemin collection.

When Elsie Roth donated her family's military treasures, she says she received verbal assurance that the public would be able to view the collection of World War I artifacts that her father had carefully maintained -- and that was very important to her.

"As I got older, I decided that the lovely collection my father had assembled while he was fighting the war should go to a place where everybody could see it, both Jew and non-Jew,'' said Roth, now 80. "I asked if they could take it on loan but was told that it would have to be a gift."

Roth said she also received assurances that the museum would take good care of her father's things when they were on and off exhibit. But on the occasions that family members have visited the museum, they say they have observed very few objects from William Shemin on display.

The family's concerns were heightened in 1999 when Roth's brother Emanuel Shemin visited the museum and saw none of his father's possessions, and the staff members he talked to that day could not find any of the items. In September 1999, museum director Herb Rosenbleeth sent Emanuel Shemin a letter reporting that all of the objects had been located.

Despite that letter and other written assurances that the majority of items are accounted for, Roth says her family has lost confidence in the museum. This past July, her son wrote to the museum demanding that the collection be returned to the family.

Joseph Roth, a Navy commander who is being deployed to Afghanistan, said the museum has never been able to show all of the items to his mother or uncle when they visited. And, he said, the family has discovered that the Distinguished Service Cross citation signed by Pershing was torn while in the care of the museum. He accompanied his mother on a visit to the museum several years ago and said that while they were told a Distinguished Service Cross on exhibit was Shemin's, the staff member would not turn the medal over so they could inspect the engraving.

"They couldn't show us the whole collection," Roth said.

Reached by a reporter by phone on Monday, Rosenbleeth would not discuss the Roths' concerns but said he would have the appropriate person return the call.

Pamela Elbe, collections manager and archivist, did call back but said she was not able to speak for the museum. She had been instructed to forward a copy of a letter sent to Joseph Roth by Museum President David Magidson inviting the family to visit the collection. The letter, dated Sept. 22, included a response by Elbe that accounted for "the majority of materials" in the collection.

"If you or any designated member of your family wish to view the materials in question please let me know and I will arrange for same to occur," Magidson wrote.

'Jews do fight'

The photocopies that Elsie Roth keeps of her father's military service are yellowed now, the words that were banged out 91 years ago on manual typewriters are beginning to blur.

Sgt. Shemin in 1919
Credit Provided by the family
Sgt. Shemin in 1919

Nine decades have passed since the young, athletic sergeant from Bayonne, N.J., made a heroic dash into gunfire to reach a wounded soldier and carry him to safety.

And then he did it again.

And again.

From a photo of Sgt. Shemin taken in May 1919.

According to the citation for his Distinguished Service Cross, Shemin showed "extraordinary heroism" on Aug. 7, 8 and 9, 1918, on three different occasions when he "left cover and crossed an open space 150 yards, exposed to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue wounded. After officers and senior noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Sgt. Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until wounded on Aug. 9."

Capt. Rupert Purdon, who commanded Shemin's outfit -- Company G, 4th Infantry, 4th Division -- was an eyewitness to one of the rescues and wrote this account certifying the act of bravery:

"Sergeant William Shemin, with the most utter disregard for his own safety, sprung from his position in his platoon trench, dashed out across the open in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine gun and rifle fire during the performance."

Purdon noted that it was early afternoon, the sun was shining and there was no possible cover.

"Despite all these circumstances, Sgt. Shemin succeeded in carrying in to our lines his wounded comrade and turning him over to stretcher bearers for evacuation to the rear.''

During the battle near the Vesle River, Shemin was wounded on the left side of his head by a gunshot that deflected off the buckle of his helmet. The wound never completely healed, his daughter said, and he would suffer from that injury and from a war-related nervous condition throughout his lifetime.

Elsie Roth remembers her father as a proud patriot, a first-generation American, born to Jewish parents who emigrated from Russia in the late 1800s. He regularly attended reunions of the Army and Navy Legion of Valor and was an active member of the Jewish Veterans of America.

Roth said that another factor that drove her donation to the National Museum of American Jewish Military History is its mission to combat anti-Semitism and to educate the public about the courage, heroism and sacrifices made by Jewish Americans who served in the armed forces. The museum was chartered in 1958 under the auspices of the Jewish War Veterans.

"So many people have felt that Jews don't fight," Roth said. "This museum has the opportunity to welcome people of all persuasions, of all races and religions, and they will see that Jews do fight -- from the Revolutionary War and on."

'Why do you want to keep it?'

Elsie Roth keeps copies of all of her correspondence with the museum, including an inventory sheet detailing all of the objects she donated. Tears well in her eyes as she talks about a mistake she feels that she made: She didn't ask the staff in 1991 to put their promises in writing.

She says the disappointment really hit home when the museum published a booklet titled "The Hall of Heroes" featuring biographies of American Jewish recipients of the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy and Air Force crosses. The biography of William Shemin included the wrong photograph and incorrect biographical information.

Then-museum president Neil Goldman sent a letter to Roth dated Nov. 7, 2001, apologizing for the incorrect photograph and for mistakes made by his staff, "both past and present."

"The museum is currently in the midst of a large-scale reorganization project for both our collections and our archives, which will ensure that all artifact records are correct. This will mean that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated and all artifacts will be preserved in the most professional manner for the future. We consider your father's collection a valuable part of the future of the museum and history of Jews in the military and hope that you agree."

In the most recent letter from Magidson, curator Elbe cited a database installed by the museum in 2003 as making it easy for her to track the Shemin items. She also noted that the museum is in the process of cataloguing all objects in its collection and she expects to find several items currently not accounted for: a photo, bullets, booty coins, pants and a placemat.

Roth acknowledges that the verbal promises she received from museum staffers in 1991 were not spelled out in the legal deed of gift that she signed transferring ownership of the collection.

But the Roths contend that the museum's actions have voided the contract and that they will pursue legal action, if necessary.

"I have lost trust in this museum," Elsie Roth said. "I want the collection back."

A former collection manager at the museum said that although he believes the museum has hired staff members who know how to handle the collections properly, he witnessed disorder when he first began working there. He knows the Roths and said he understands how they feel.

"Elsie wants the collection back, but she can't get it back because it is not hers anymore. It is theirs," he said. "On the other hand, she has been treated very poorly by the museum. She gave them the collection in good faith and it was accepted. The collection is one of the finest in the country and it should be on display and it is not. It's truly an extraordinary collection and it is a shame it is not on display for the public to see. She has a lot of reason to be unhappy."

Joseph Roth said he doesn't understand why the museum insists on keeping his grandfather's collection when it hasn't shown an interest in exhibiting most of the items.

"The question is, why do you want to keep it if you don't show it? They can't seem to answer that," he said.

Ellen Futterman is editor of the Jewish Light. She can be reached at efutterman@thejewishlight.com. Contact Beacon staff writer Mary Delach Leonard. This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.