The Jewish Boxer Who Helped the Allies Turn the Tide of World War I
Benjamin Kaufman, a tenacious boxer from Brooklyn, stuck by his men and never shied away from a fight. His grit helped America win in the Argonne.
Opening his newspaper on May 5, 1921, cigar salesman Ben Kaufman was in for a shock. The U.S. government released a list of slackers, or men who had dodged the draft in the First World War. There it was, midway down this ignominious roll call: Benjamin Kaufman, Brooklyn, New York. Bounties of up to $50 awaited the capture of each slacker—about $300 in today’s money. These payouts were intended for law-enforcement officials but others thought they were eligible to collect.
In the previous “slacker raids” of 1918, tens of thousands of suspected draft dodgers were arrested both by officials and vigilantes affiliated with the reactionary American Protective League (APL). The victims of the raids were often kept in miserable conditions, and denied legal rights. The APL had also been notoriously anti-Semitic and sought to expel the “Bolshevik Jew” from American society. By 1921, even though the APL no longer existed, there were fresh calls for its revival to ferret out “un-Americans.” No surprise that some men who saw their names in the newspapers in the spring of 1921 skipped town.
Not Kaufman. The amateur bounty hunters would regret trying to mess with him. And he had some show-and-tell to lug to the military office—his Congressional Medal of Honor, one of the first in the war to have been received by a Jewish soldier. With his medal came a remarkable story of heroism that sounded almost too outlandish to be true.
Born March 10, 1894, Kaufman spent his earliest years on a farm upstate before the family settled in Brooklyn. Between his foreign heritage (his parents came from Russia) and being Jewish—not to mention his eight older siblings—he had to learn to defend himself. “Unless you could fight in East New York in Brooklyn at that time, you just didn’t have a chance,” he later recalled. “When you came home with a bloodied nose and black eyes… our mother, instead of scolding us, would fix us up with First Aid.”
Though he wasn't tall, he was sturdy and packed a punch. He got kicked out of Erasmus Hall high school for breaking the football captain's nose, then did well enough at his next school, Newton High in Elmhurst, New York, to walk out with a scholarship to Syracuse University. While studying engineering there, fighting landed him in trouble again, so he dropped out to pursue professional baseball, one of several sports he'd excelled at in high school and at Syracuse.
By 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany and became a full participant in the First World War, Kaufman was selling shoes in Trenton, New Jersey. The 23-year-old applied to an aviation school so he could enter the military as a pilot, but he was among the first lists of names called in the draft before he had the chance to begin training.
Kaufman, who had steel grey eyes with a don’t-I-know-you face, was assigned to Company K of the 308th Regiment’s 77th Division. Their uniforms boasted a patch of the Statue of Liberty, a shout-out to the region from which the soldiers hailed and to the division’s diverse blend of heritages—it was said to have the most languages spoken within it of any military division in modern history. The 77th also had the largest number of Jewish soldiers in the American Expeditionary Forces, or AEF, a term for U.S. troops in the First World War.
Quickly chosen as a sergeant, Kaufman began using his fists again, but this time in sanctioned forums. The 5’6” Brooklynite became the unlikely boxing champ of his regiment. In one bout, he got clobbered after being out the night before on a drinking binge. So from that day on, he claimed, he never drank, and abstained from cigarettes: “I guess I never fit the picture of the tough, hard-drinking sergeant.”
With his unit transported to France in March 1918, preparation accelerated and combat began. Sergeant Kaufman continued to impress. At two different points, the brass recommended he be put up for officer training. Kaufman, remarkably, declined the chance both times, since further promotion would mean being transferred away from Company K. “We were very much attached to one another,” he explained. “I couldn’t think of leaving them and going to some other outfit.” Kaufman was the leader who never tried to elevate himself over the pack. For this, he was known as the “best top kick”—slang for First Sergeant—in the AEF.
Kaufman’s company fought on the Aisne River in northern France in August 1918, trying to block the Germans from taking control of the area. Their group fell under attack from opposing troops shelling them with toxic gas. Kaufman watched comrades die as the battle wore on. The Americans were in funk holes, or small dugouts providing temporary shelter. As Kaufman directed the firing by his men, one of these funk holes collapsed from artillery fire, burying a soldier inside. Kaufman desperately tried to dig him out.
His bulky anti-gas apparatus interfered with the rescue attempt, so Kaufman made a risky, potentially fatal decision—he removed his gas mask and tossed it aside. As he worked at a faster clip to free the buried man, another German gas shell landed nearby, exploding. Kaufman was partially blinded.
In a haze from the poison gas, Kaufman continued his frantic efforts to save injured men, while the battle raged. His condition deteriorated. For hours, Kaufman eluded the company's medical personnel, “groping his way through the woods,” as another member of the division put it. It took until the evening for one of his superiors in Company K to catch up to Kaufman and drag him—protesting—away from his “buddies” to the hospital. Reinforced by a mighty showing of French troops, the AEF helped stop the Germans during the Aisne-Marne Offensive, and pushed them back where they had begun, marking a shift in the war’s momentum.
Jews were a disproportionately large percentage of the U.S. military in the First World War, and the government even appointed a number of Jewish chaplains to serve the Armed Forces. Still, suspicion and distrust of minorities festered. Jewish communities in America were a relatively recent phenomenon and retained a foreign aura. The U.S. military, like most institutions, was rife with anti-Semitism, and a Jewish soldier had to carefully navigate it. The war provided an international stage to showcase their contributions.
If someone made a defamatory remark against Jews, Kaufman found a way to do a kind gesture for that person. “Just to show you how wrong you are,” as Kaufman explained to an offender in a similar situation years later. The Kaufman family attended synagogue and celebrated their roots but also singled out their path to America as cause for celebration. Every Oct. 27, all the Kaufman siblings would gather to mark the day their parents arrived in 1881 from Russia. “It’s not a duty to serve our country,” Kaufman told a reporter. “It’s our chance to pay back a little for the good things we have received.”
Stuck in the hospital after being gassed at the Aisne River counter-offensive, Kaufman languished. Captain Louis Miles of the 77th marveled that “even in Paris,” Kaufman was miserable being unable to help his men in the field. Kaufman may have been more impressed with the medical care than he let on; at one of his hospital stays, he apparently fell for a nurse named Miss Manners, whose true identity remains unknown to this day.
His vision still not fully recovered, one day Kaufman got up from his cot and stole a uniform to put over his hospital garb. He slipped out of the hospital without authorization. But he wasn't ducking service, he was trying to get back to the men.
“I should have been in the hospital recovering,” Kaufman admitted later, “but when I heard my outfit was moving up, I checked out on the QT and rejoined my buddies.” Military authorities eventually caught up with him. It remains unclear if Kaufman was actually tried in a court-martial proceeding, or only threatened with one. In 2002, the late libertarian activist Aaron Zelman cited even the hint of punishment for Kaufman as a historical example of institutionalized anti-Semitism: “the ‘benevolent’ government that courts Jews one day turns on us the next.”
Whether determined through a trial or a less formal proceeding, Kaufman was ultimately given a pass for his transgression of eagerness. He returned to his troops at Butte de Bourmont “still blind and hardly able to walk,” according to Captain Miles. Kaufman was there in late September in time for an ominous turn of events. A harrowing campaign loomed at the Argonne Forest in northeastern France.
Major-General Robert Alexander projected a persona that was the polar opposite to Benjamin Kaufman. Alexander had a broad face with a stony, unwelcoming gaze. His father was a judge, but a lack of West Point credentials meant Alexander wasn’t given any shortcuts up the military’s ranks. Coming from such an affluent background, there was a certain level of resentment on Alexander’s part that he’d have to prove himself worthy of leadership positions. Alexander never doubted he should be raised above the rest of the men.
Alexander, 64 years old as he took a command role in the 77th, proved an effective leader—but he wasn’t embraced by the soldiers. He was authoritarian and seemed to shift around his units in battle callously, like pieces in a chess game. While Kaufman felt it important to stand side-by-side with his men, Alexander wanted foot soldiers to accept their allotted roles. Though Alexander was vocal about the excellent service of the many Jewish soldiers in the 77th, “the Hebrew boy,” as he collectively referred to the group, fell squarely into the category of pawns in his life-and-death gambits.
The French and British insisted that drafted men—like those in the 77th—could not be relied on to win the war. “It was extremely important that the 77th succeed,” wrote historian Robert Laplander in Finding the Lost Battalion. “As the first National Army division overseas and the first to take the field of battle, it had a lot to prove about whether America could successfully field an army of draftees that would fight (and win).”
In a grave development that threatened to tip the outcome of the war against the Allies, the Germans had seized a strategic stretch of the Argonne Forest that allowed them to control part of the French railroad system. The AEF was tasked with a daunting operation to dislodge the Germans’ entrenched position. In the course of the extensive campaign, which ran from late September into early October, some 500 soldiers from the Statue of Liberty division came to be cut off from the rest of the army behind German lines. They were later known as the “lost battalion.”
The alarming situation of cut-off troops was not entirely unforeseen. As one of the primary architects of the plan, Major General Alexander, explained, “My orders were quite positive and precise—the objective was to be gained without regard to losses and without regard to the exposed condition of the flanks.” With insufficient supplies and defenses, the soldiers were sitting ducks in Argonne as they waited to be joined by other companies. Alexander had taken, as an angered Captain Miles later noted, a “damn the torpedoes and go ahead” approach to combat.
Germans captured one of the soldiers of this so-called lost battalion, Private Lowell Hollingshead. After questioning him, and getting no intel, the Germans sent Hollingshead back to his men with a letter to his commanding officer. In a very polite taunt, the letter recommended surrender: “It would be quite useless to resist any more in view of the present conditions. The suffering of your wounded men can be heard over here in the German lines and we are appealing to your human sentiments.”
As the stranded Statue of Liberty soldiers fought off the Germans, Kaufman and Company K were on the other side of the forest, split up from their trapped comrades. This time, far more than a hospital bed separated Kaufman from the men he felt charged with protecting.
Intelligence was limited about the status of the “lost” soldiers, but the outlook was bleak. Temperatures plummeted at night, and the cut-off companies had discarded their overcoats and blankets, presumably to lighten their loads; the scarce rations of food and water were running out, while the trapped men were being gradually picked off by enemy snipers and shelling. They were surrounded and the walls were closing in.
The officers behind enemy lines spread the word to their terrified men to hold: Our mission is to hold this position at all costs. No falling back. Have this understood by every man in your command. But they also sent desperate messages via pigeon asking for help. One pigeon-borne note finished this way, Situation serious and another begged, Cannot support be sent at once? They hunkered down in funk holes that were collapsing under the men’s weight. A slight rustle could mean instant death. “It pains like hell, Captain,” one private, who was bleeding out from a stomach wound, said to his superior, “but I’ll keep as quiet as I can.”
Retreat wasn’t just looking impossible—it was in fact outlawed by Major General Alexander. Days earlier, Alexander had issued a convoluted statement essentially forbidding troops from falling back, on punishment of death. “Whoever gives such a command is a traitor and it is the duty of any officer or man who is loyal to his country and who hears such an order given to shoot the offender upon the spot.”
Alexander’s order left no choice. The only way for the lost battalion to get out alive would be for troops on Kaufman’s side, improbably, to get in. The trapped men’s last carrier pigeon, despite being seriously injured, fluttered over the woods to base with a final plea and their location: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4.” The plan on the Allied side of the battle lines was for the remaining troops of the 77th to clear a way through the Argonne to make a path for a support division, the 28th, to pass through, and aid them in reaching the stranded troops.
The forest terrain was brutal, rocky, unforgiving, and nearly impassable with tangled brush and treacherous ravines. German artillery corps had set up on a high ridge. Any approaching troops would be mowed down before they even got close. The commissioned officers in Company K who outranked Kaufman had all been killed or wounded in the Argonne fighting, leaving Kaufman in charge. The honor he had turned down twice—to become a commanding officer—had come to pass in the worst possible way. Kaufman later recalled the unlikely realization hitting him. “I was in command of the company.”
Two days since the contingent of men had become lost and almost two weeks into the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, on October 4, Kaufman received word that the task of clearing the way to reach the lost battalion would fall to him. He was charged with taking out the “nest” of German machine gunners, part of the German Third Army, who were preventing a rescue.
Kaufman asked for volunteers for the deadly assignment. The crew he assembled included a hard-charging sergeant, Anthony J. Kruger, and Privates Iacoviello and Vanderlip. As they crawled on the ground for 1,000 yards to hide their approach, Kaufman was hit, his right arm wounded by a machine gun positioned some 25 yards away. The arm that had been responsible for so many knockout punches was rendered useless.
Kruger was shot twice in the neck and fell unconscious. Then in a flurry of fire Iacoviello and Vanderlip were also shot. They were still alive but one was critically injured, the other incapacitated. Kaufman looked around, tallying up other men who had been mowed down by the gunners’ nest. He counted the bodies of eight men he had known, men with whom he’d dined and bunked.
The mission appeared over before it began. If they couldn’t shut down the machine gun nest any advance of troops into the Argonne was doomed. Time was running out on their marooned, suffering colleagues. Spilling out blood at a dangerous rate, Kaufman realized his squad was down to one: him.
Years later, Kaufman revealed what he was thinking in that moment. He thought about the scrapes between gangs of kids back in East Brooklyn of his youth. “We had to fight for our own lives, and I remember hiding behind trees and throwing stones and then finally catching up with one guy and stopping him.” He applied the lessons of the street to the situation in front him. This standoff with the overwhelmingly better-armed artillery corps “was no more or less than a gang fight. But to me it was much more than that... My country was in danger. My boys, the boys that were fighting with me, they were in danger.”
Instead of stones, he readied grenades. At the same time, Kaufman motivated himself by thinking about the Germans as being “always anti-Semitic.” (In reality, there may well have been Jewish soldiers among those fighting on the German side in Argonne, and the anti-Semitic gangs of kids attacking the young Ben Kaufman of his memories were American.)
Kaufman, without backup or support, charged the machine guns from the flank. He began to lob grenades with his left hand at the nest. He had put himself in the sights of a German machine gunner.
Kaufman removed his pistol—which was empty at this point, though it’s unclear if Kaufman knew that—and rushed at his enemy. Kaufman yelled out threateningly, demanding surrender. By the time he reached the nest, of the 10 German gunners, most were either wounded or dead from his grenades. The rest had fled, possibly having been fooled into believing a platoon had ambushed them. Kaufman was left with one prisoner.
The abandoned machine gun nest was no longer a threat to the American advance. But Kaufman’s work wasn’t over. Completely alone, he had to get word back to AEF higher-ups so they would know to send troops in before German reinforcements arrived and the window closed. The clock ticked.
With his empty pistol and his shattered arm, Kaufman led his prisoner, marching him back toward American lines, forcing the captive to carry his machine gun. On their way, they encountered Iacoviello, the private under Kaufman’s command who had been injured. Nearing the first-aid station at a bunker ominously known as l’Homme Mort, or “the dead man,” Kaufman handed the prisoner over to Iacoviello, and then, after revealing his intel that would give the go-ahead to launch the rescue, Kaufman collapsed from loss of blood. Kaufman’s men from Company K charged into the forest, and they were the very first unit to reach the lost battalion, a scene of intense emotion and wonder on both sides.
Kaufman was tended to by medical personnel. Though he could not see the results for himself, his mission succeeded beyond all expectation. With the machine gun nest neutralized, the 28th Division soldiers also advanced into the forest, while more units from Kaufman's 77th amassed from the south and the 82nd moved in from the far eastern flank. True to form, Kaufman’s military triumph had not been about geopolitical strategizing but about defending the foot soldiers. Though the Germans put up a fierce resistance, the AEF got the survivors out.
In triumph, a sobering reality hit. Of the 500 or so soldiers who had been locked in behind German lines, less than half had survived.
The four-day offensive in the Argonne, including the rescue of the lost battalion and an array of other clashes, stands as one of the deadliest in American military history. Major General Alexander, who oversaw it, would later be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which came with unintentionally comic praise for having “visited the units in the front line, cheering and encouraging them to greater efforts.” The costly victory is credited with pushing the balance of power to the Allies and precipitating the Armistice a month later. Kaufman’s unlikely one-man raid on the German gunners not only opened the path to save his stranded comrades, but also helped tip the war toward its final chapter.
Convalescing from his injuries, Kaufman’s next reported posting was in the fledgling secret service, or intelligence division of the army, during the occupation of Germany. Long before the founding of the CIA, Kaufman was engaged in covert work for four to five months, something he rarely spoke about later. The G2—the intelligence division of American military—as well as other operatives monitored newspapers and announcements, and scouted out subversives and radicals, hoping to root out any plots against occupying troops.
Faced with his name staring back at him from the “slackers” list in the newspapers a few years after the war’s end, Ben Kaufman didn’t just have the Medal of Honor in a trunk as proof of his service. He had military awards for heroism from eight other Allied countries, including the French Croix de Guerre with Palm and the Italian Croce di Guerra.
But it turned out the published list that included Kaufman’s name was correct, in a way—there was a Benjamin Kaufman of Brooklyn who had skipped out on his military service. The two Ben Kaufmans were born a few months apart and, apparently, resembled each other physically, as well as having reportedly registered for military service on the same date. Kaufman cleared his name, and the cautionary story of the mix-up became a cause célèbre in The New York Times and other media that raised questions about the government policing patriotism.
Family lore has it that Kaufman returned to Europe after the war to look for the European nurse with whom he had fallen in love—but never found her. Kaufman eventually settled in Trenton, New Jersey, where he married and had a daughter, and after a series of sales jobs he worked for state government. Held up as a paragon of courage in war, Kaufman found his calling as a spokesperson and advocate for veterans, a role he played for decades through the Jewish War Veterans.
To prepare to be a speaker and influencer, Kaufman learned elocution from a teacher who had him put marbles in his mouth, and removed one marble each time he improved his diction. He opposed anti-Semitism, even taking on the American icon Charles Lindbergh’s inflammatory blame-the-Jews rhetoric. Kaufman realized how dangerous a persuasive speaker could be, and how otherwise “civilized human beings” could be fomented to attack their fellow citizens.
Look magazine called him “America’s second Sergeant York,” a reference to the celebrated First World War veteran who was portrayed by Gary Cooper in a 1941 film. A few years before Action Comics introduced Superman (who also had Jewish roots through his creators), one newspaper labeled Kaufman a “superhero.” The peak of public attention on Kaufman’s heroism actually came during the Second World War, when Kaufman’s war stories helped promote military enlistment. A radio play about him was produced, dramatizing how everyman Kaufman tore off his gas mask to save his men, escaped a hospital under risk of court-martial to return to his platoon, and single-handedly took out the German machine gun nest in Argonne. It was pretty accurate. A 1943 comic book of real heroes’ war stories, too, dramatized Kaufman’s tale under the title, “The Man Who Loved to Fight.”
The inspiration Kaufman provided in drumming up new soldiers had a dark side: many men came back in coffins rather than draped with medals. (That is how I first heard of Ben Kaufman: my grandmother’s cousin, Wally Kaufman, was a nephew of Ben’s, and credited Ben’s World War I heroics as his inspiration for enlisting in World War II. Wally, 23, was captured in the Pacific theater after surviving a plane crash, held as a prisoner of war, and beheaded on May 24, 1945.)
Just as there once had been two Ben Kaufmans on the 1921 New York slacker list, sometimes it felt to Kaufman’s family there were two Bens as well. There was Ben the venerated war hero who was fêted and worshipped. Then there was Ben who removed himself from his family when he fell in love with another woman, resulting in a divorce from Gertrude, his first wife, and a second marriage to Dorothy Finkle, a strong woman who endured physical limitations from polio.
The estrangement from Kaufman's first wife and daughter lasted until Kaufman's death in 1981. Though Kaufman didn't have more children, he did find an extended family with the Finkles, and a larger social network in the Trenton community. (Jan Finnell, a costume and jewelry designer, and niece of Kaufman’s through his second wife, has been working to preserve archival material passed on to her through the family. In part because of the reporting for this article, Kaufman’s granddaughter, Maggie DeVries, and the Finkle family have been in touch for the first time.)
Kaufman’s heroism comes off as so remarkable, it’s easy to forget he was a real person. But he was in many ways tormented by the idea of being a hero. He opened up about this in a lengthy radio interview. “It’s rather difficult that just because I have a medal in a mad moment of battle... people praise me. Deep down, I can’t understand it.” Incredibly, he felt dogged by the notion that he deserved not a Medal of Honor for disregarding his own life, but a court-martial. “Lives are too valuable,” he reflected. “To me, a hero is out of his mind.”
Unlike Major General Alexander, who remained committed to his decisions that left so many men to die, Kaufman was quietly haunted by coming out on the other side of war intact—even after saving so many lives. He couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe there really was a version of himself who deserved to be branded, hunted down, punished for making a soldier’s life seem glamorous to other young men.
In the comic book version of his tale, Kaufman-as-character sits at a court-martial hearing after breaking out of the hospital to rejoin his company. He listens stoically to the verdict: “Sergeant Kaufman, we find you guilty of wanting to fight! Get back to your men!” The real Ben Kaufman did, as the comic suggested, try to re-enlist at 48 years old for World War II. “I still regret that they didn’t take me,” he told a reporter for the Asbury Park Press when he was 84 years old. He was, by all accounts, a man of few words and an impish sense of humor, who preferred writing poetry to talking about his pivotal role in the events of 1918. When asked for his stories, he would often reply, “War is brutal.”