Holocaust events shaped 21-year-old’s decision to join AF

  • Published
  • By Robin McMacken, Skywrighter Staff
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Oh -- Senior Airman Steven Elgowsky, 445th Civil Engineer Squadron engineering aide and member of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Honor Guard, exhibits a steady passion in telling stories of his Jewish heritage. It uniquely shaped his desire to join the Air Force.

President Joe Biden proclaimed April 24 through May 1 as a week of observance for the Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust, and called upon the nation to observe this week and pause to remember victims and survivors.

Elgowsky, who enlisted in March 2018, does that not just this week, but essentially every day while serving as a bridge between faith communities and cultures.

The 21-year-old says his maternal grandfather’s family is from Germany. During the Nazi Party’s progression, “my great-grandfather was a strong voice against the rise of Adolf Hitler,” he said. “My great-grandfather would go to rallies that were in support of the Nazi Party and would interrupt them. At one, he was hit in the face with a broomstick and ended up having a scar across his face for the rest of his life.”

In 1933, after Hitler came to power, the family fled to the United States.

Elgowsky’s maternal great-grandmother, as well as paternal grandparents, immigrated from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, he added: “Little is known of the reason for them coming. However, with the rise of anti-Semitism in the region, they most likely fled because of persecution.”

From an early age, Elgowsky exhibited a profound curiosity in his faith.

He was born in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, and he and his family moved to Burlington, Kentucky, when he was 1.

“I was the only practicing Jewish person in my school of around 1,200,” he recalled. “The nearest synagogue is 45 minutes away from the house in Wyoming, Ohio.”

His mother, Susan, remembers her son embraced Judaism at an early age. She said he always had an interest in continuing his religious studies: “He was the most passionate about it; as I told the rabbi, he’s our drive to be active” in temple.

“He’s a kind, caring and empathetic person,” she added.

Each year, Elgowsky said, “I went to a Jewish summer camp in Indiana from the time I was 11 or 12 to 16, and most of my Jewish experiences come from here.”

He was Bar Mitzvah’d on Oct. 5, 2013, during which he read from the Torah. In 2015, he traveled to Israel for a month with support from Cincinnati’s Jewish community.

“I went to a vast variety of places, including where Israel claimed independence, different monuments, as well as Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem,” he said.

Studying the Holocaust was “very important” to Elgowsky as he traced the different Jewish experiences: “I have been to museums in Washington, D.C.; Ohio, Detroit, Chicago, Israel, Florida, and have been to many speakers who were survivors of the Holocaust.”

Elgowsky added he is “very open about my religion in both life and in service … the Air Force is very diverse. However, I routinely run into people who have never met a Jewish person in their life, even with the United States having the second-largest Jewish population in the world.”

When talking to his rabbi, as well as many other people about joining the Air Force, he said he was discouraged from putting “Jewish” on his dog tags “due to fear of what would happen to me,” if he were to be possibly deployed to a location extremely hostile to Jews.

But he persevered and the word is stamped on his dog tags.

Last year, Elgowsky joined the WPAFB Honor Guard. “Wanting to do good for veterans’ families, as well as give them what they have earned,” Elgowsky said he felt compelled to pursue this “very humbling and cool mission.”

His mother is not surprised he’s found such a fitting niche as an Honor Guard member. “Steven embraces the responsibility,” she said, adding “it shines through in what he tells us.”

Elgowsky added: “It comes from how I was raised, as well as the idea (that) so many people were not able to be buried with dignity, so I want to honor veterans in the best way that I can possible.”