- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

WOODCLIFF LAKE, N.J. (AP) - At 16, Jake Ziff has been thinking about patriotism for a long time. Not necessarily the fireworks on the Fourth of July kind, or the red-white-and-blue crepe streamers woven into the spokes of a bike for the annual parade.

Jake’s patriotism is the kind that led him to start an oral history project, interviewing Jewish combat veterans of World War II as the public service component of his bar mitzvah instruction three years ago.

The bar mitzvah, the celebration that marks the beginning of manhood for Jewish boys at age 13, has come and gone, but Jake Ziff is still searching for vets to interview and sending the videotapes to the Library of Congress.

The interviews are added to the organized body of material collected by the library’s Veterans History Project, which preserves the stories of how men and women served their country in battle from World War II, through Korea, Vietnam and more recent combat in the Middle East.

“They didn’t want to accept my materials at first because I was so young,” Ziff told The Record (http://bit.ly/29lbXNh ) as he edited a recent interview. “But my rabbi intervened and persuaded library officials that these were important contributions.”

“Jake’s unusual that way,” said his father, Bob Ziff, at the family home in Ramsey. “When he was 8 years old, Jake sent $3 of his allowance money to the Glenn Miller Birthplace Museum in Iowa instead of spending it on Pokémon cards.”

In a hand-printed letter he sent with the money, Jake wrote, “Even though I am 8 years old, I love Glenn Miller more than Pokémon.” He added, “My favorite song is ‘I Know Why.’”

Ziff, who has had about 10 of his video interviews accepted by the Library of Congress, said meeting with men of what he calls “the Greatest Generation” has given him a different perspective of what it means to be patriotic.

“I always knew the expression ‘freedom isn’t free,’ but I know now that I didn’t really know what that meant,” he said. “Now, after speaking with many of these men, I know about what it’s like to be shot and get wounded so that we can enjoy the freedoms we take for granted.”

And Ziff, who has always had an interest in history, especially the 1940s and even more particularly World War II, said his project has taught him many things he hasn’t learned in school.

“Yes, we learn about the Holocaust and yes we learn about concentration camps,” he said. “But we don’t learn about what it is like to be a soldier under fire in war. And, for instance, I never learned in school about a special concentration camp, called Berga, where they put Jewish American POWs.”

About 350 American POWs, almost all of them Jewish, were separated from a large prisoner camp and marched to the German camp for a special work detail, digging tunnels and blasting rock for an underground munitions factory in February 1945, in the waning months of the war.

By the time they were ordered evacuated as Allied forces advanced in April, Jake said, more than 50 of the POWs had been worked to death and the rest were little more than moving skeletons.

Ziff said he first got the idea for his oral history project when he was 12 and preparing for his bar mitzvah, looking for a social service component. “Other kids were doing things with animal shelters and helping the homeless and environmental things, which is fine,” he said.

Years earlier, the young man’s father, a Coast Guard veteran, had pulled together a similar series of interviews of older veterans of the service he had been a part of. “So I thought it would be good to do the same thing with Jewish World War II vets,” Jake Ziff said.

“There are huge gaps in our history, and the Greatest Generation is dying out now,” Jake said. “If we don’t collect this information now, it will be lost forever.”

Ziff said he also learned from his experience that the World War II vets he interviewed have no doubts that they did the right thing by going to war - and also that most do not feel the same about later wars.

“One of them, a vet who was wounded in the D-Day invasion, told me all the wars since World War II were a waste,” he said.

When he first approached the Library of Congress with the proposal, the answer was “absolutely not,” Jake said, “because I was 12 and the youngest they would allow was 16.”

But Rabbi Shelley Kniaz of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, who was mentoring Jake for his bar mitzvah, knew the boy could deliver on his proposal.

“They did not know what a remarkable kid he was, so I picked up the phone and vouched for him,” she said. “I told them, ‘You have not met a kid like this.’ “

Kniaz promised to supervise him and suggested that the library look at one video interview and then decide. “They were blown away,” the rabbi said.

When he’s not conducting interviews and getting nearly straight A’s in his Ramsey High School courses, the rising junior plays the euphonium (a small tuba-like instrument) for the school’s marching band and the trombone for pleasure.

He also runs his own business, which he started before he reached high school. Known as DJ Jazzy, he spins the platters at local parties. “I picked the name because I love jazz and my initials are JAZ, for Jacob Alan Ziff,” he said.

“I love history and I love the 1940s and I love jazz, especially Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman,” he said.

And how did he acquire his appreciation for the music of the 1940s? “From my dad,” he said. “He was always playing the records as I was growing up.”

___

Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), http://www.northjersey.com

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