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Body of Jewish WWII hero from Pittsburgh is recovered 80 years later and given a proper burial

When Samantha Baskind was a child in Cleveland, her father would sometimes talk about her great-uncle Nathan Baskind from Pittsburgh.

“‘Your Uncle Nate was a great Jewish-American war hero,’” she said he would tell her. “And those were his exact words that he would repeat, like there was a mantra whenever he would bring up Nate.”

Baskind would grow up to become an art historian — she’s now an art professor at Cleveland State University — whose work sometimes focused on World War II and the Holocaust. She knew the ways history has sometimes been distorted to seem as though Jewish people in World War II were “killed like sheep” without defending themselves. So she thought it was possible her dad repeated this refrain about her great-uncle Nate to remind her of the truth of her ancestors.

Baskin received an email last year out of the blue, promising her “one of the most surprising and unusual” messages she would ever receive.

“We think we found your Uncle Nate,” she was told. “Which is a huge shock. And then [the emailer] breaks the news that Nate is buried in a grave with Nazis and Germans, and it's a mass grave. And that was utterly horrifying. And we went from there.”

The ensuing year would prove at times to be stressful and uncertain. As Baskind set about trying to find the truth about her uncle, however, she believed it was important to heal a deep wound in her family: Her great-grandfather, Abe, had tried in vain after the war’s end to find Nate’s remains.

The person reaching out to her, Shalom Lamm, said the importance of finding Baskind’s remains is explained by the Torah story of the Jew’s exodus from Egypt. After more than 200 years of slavery in Egypt, just as the Jewish people were finally about to be freed — the seminal moment in their history — the Torah said Moses does something seemingly “crazy,” Lamm said.

“It says, ‘And Moses went to get the bones of Joseph because the Israelites promised they would take him out of Egypt,'” Lamm said. “Joseph’s been there for 210 years, yet [Moses doesn’t] have more important things to do? And the answer is no. It’s an incredible Biblical lesson: You don’t leave your heroes behind. They still matter.”

Samantha Basking, the great nice of Nathan, was presented with an American Flag at his burial service.
Courtesy image
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Samantha Baskind
Samantha Basking, the great nice of Nathan, was presented with an American Flag at his burial service.

Lamm is the head historian for a group called Operation Benjamin, which looks for Jewish soldiers who were improperly buried under a Christian cross and then finds a way to bury them under a Star of David instead. But Baskind’s case was unique beyond any other he has encountered, Lamm said. Fewer than 30 of the more than 1,500 American soldiers who were missing at the end of World War II have since been found.

“Recovering lost soldiers is an incredibly difficult thing,” he said. “In our case, it was compounded by the fact that it was a mass grave.”

‘That’s what a hero is’

Nathan Baskind lived on Darlington Road in Squirrel Hill and managed two branches of his family’s business, Peerless Wallpaper, one in New Castle and one in Wheeling, West Virginia. But after the United States joined World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and landed in Normandy on D-Day in 1944.

Just 17 days later, on June 23, Baskind was in the middle of a battle in Cherbourg, France. He was a 2nd Lieutenant, in charge of four M10 tank destroyers. He and his driver set out in a Jeep to find a new position from which his unit could fire on the Germans.

The topography of the area was full of sharp inclines, which made it impossible to travel except by road, Lamm said. When the jeep came to a five-way intersection, it was ambushed. Lamm said the topography also meant that, after the Jeep was fired upon, Baskind’s driver had places to quickly find cover. Although he was wounded, the driver eventually made his way back to safety. Baskind was presumed dead.

“The fact that he went ahead of his men, to do this in an area that was just crawling with German defenses is clear,” Lamm said. “And yet he did it anyway. That's what a hero is.”

It turned out that Baskind had survived and been taken to a German hospital. But Lamm said these hospitals were in bad shape, a fact the American soldiers learned after they captured the area. An American blockade prevented supplies or even fresh water from reaching the hospitals. And during the heat of battle, Lamm said, the Germans had no time to provide their own soldiers with proper burials — let alone a prisoner. When Baskind died, his body was dumped into a grave with 23 German soldiers.

There was one unsuccessful effort to recover Baskind’s body in the 1950s. The 24 bodies in Baskind’s grave were eventually combined with another 29 bodies and moved to a new German burial site. At that time, Baskind’s dog tags and unit patch were recovered. But in 1957, the U.S. Mortuary Service was unable to make a positive identification from his unique dental records, and his family was never told of that circumstantial evidence of where he was buried.

Then last year, a genealogist who specializes in German war cemeteries noticed that Baskind’s name was unusual for his burial site and eventually reached out to Operation Benjamin.

Operation Benjamin helped facilitate a multinational process that involved reaching out to various French, German and American authorities and obtaining permission to exhume the grave and recover Baskin’s remains.

It was difficult work last December for a team of anthropologists to find and sort through the thousands of bones and fragments the grave contained.

Two anthropolgists help exhume bones from the mass grave.
Courtesy image
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Operation Benjamin
Two anthropolgists help exhume bones from the mass grave.

“The ground was cold and the ground was hard, and the conditions were terrible,” Samantha Baskind said. “And they got in there and there were thousands of broken bones, way more bones than they thought. And they were broken, and they were in bad condition because of the soil.”

Baskind was only 5 feet 5 inches tall, and the anthropologists were able to find five possible femur bones for a man of short stature. They sent all five of the short femurs to be tested for DNA evidence — one of which was “an extraordinarily high-level DNA match” with his descendants.

On June 23 of this year, exactly 80 years after Baskind was ambushed, his remains were finally given a proper burial at Normandy’s American Military Cemetery — with both full military honors and Jewish rites delivered by a rabbi.

“The commander of the honor guard was a captain. And he brought me the flag. He was a proud Jewish soldier,” said his niece, Samantha Baskind. “And when he handed it to me, we were both overcome with emotion.”

Baskind, the honor guard officers and even the German officials in attendance all grabbed a shovel, and in accordance with Jewish tradition, helped to put dirt on Baskind’s casket. Inside it, his 2nd Lieutenant's uniform covered his remains.

“It's not just about one person,” Samantha said. “It's about different nations and people who were once pitted against each other coming together.”

Oliver Morrison