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Ma Young-Sam, left, until last year South Korea’s ambassador to Israel, says he feels “so fortunate” to have paid tribute to American Jewish veterans of the Korean War like Leonard Wisper, who he is shown greeting here.

BALTIMORE — Draping his country’s Peace Envoy medal over Irwin Goldstein’s head, South Korea’s ambassador to Israel, Ma Young-Sam, felt a deep sense of national and personal gratitude.

The gratitude was national because Goldstein fought for the United States in the Korean War. It was personal because Ma’s father held a municipal government position when the communist North invaded South Korea in 1950, and he might have been executed had his country lost the war.

Goldstein was one of seven Korean War veterans living in Israel honored by Ma on June 25, 2009. The ceremony has been held each year since. The next one is set for June 25, the anniversary of the war’s start.

The upcoming gathering at Kim’s official residence on Moshav Rishpon, near Tel Aviv, will celebrate a half-century since Israel and South Korea established diplomatic relations. Ma’s successor as ambassador, Kim Il-Soo, has invited 25 American veterans now living in Israel for the celebration and hopes to reach others who live in Israel or will be visiting.

“We Koreans appreciate very genuinely the sacrifice by foreign soldiers,” Kim said. “Without [it], we don’t know what our fate would have been.”

South Korean embassies annually honor veterans in the 16 countries that fought against the North under the United Nations’ banner. Israel is the only country outside of that group where such a ceremony is held, Ma and Kim said. While the Jewish state did not send soldiers to fight in the Korean War, Ma’s research in Israeli archives yielded two key discoveries.

He learned that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion convened an emergency Cabinet meeting at President Chaim Weizmann’s Rehovot home seven days after the war’s outbreak. There, Ma said, Israel made a strategic turn to the United States by supporting America’s pro-South efforts against the Soviet Union-backed North. Israel also decided to send $100,000 in food items to South Korea.

“This was 1950. Israel was not rich at the time,” Ma said last week from Seoul, where he now handles the Foreign Ministry’s public diplomacy and performance evaluation. “We appreciate that very much.”

Ma decided to honor the veterans after seeing a photograph of Normandy’s World War II battlefield cemetery, which showed a lone gravestone decorated with a Star of David. With just five years separating the wars, he figured that some Jewish World War II soldiers also were likely to have fought in Korea – and some must have retired to Israel.

He got in touch with the Washington-based Jewish War Veterans, which connected him with Korean War veterans living in Israel. He also spoke on the “Hamador L’chipus Krovim” (Searching for Relatives Bureau) radio program. He learned that 4,000 American Jews served in the Korean War and some were living in the Jewish state.

“This is just a small return for their contributions, which were immense,” Ma said. “They saved our country. I feel so fortunate that in Israel, we could recognize their sacrifice for us before they die.”

Another veteran already honored is Netanel Blasbalg, a retired engineer living near Haifa. Blasbalg, now 81, served in the U.S. Marines from 1951 to 1953, based near Panmunjom. He welcomed Ma’s invitation to the first ceremony, and with this one he will have attended three of the four gatherings.

“I was tickled pink. I brought my daughter and three grandchildren because I wanted to show them how a nation expressed its thanks,” said Blasbalg, a Netherlands native who had followed his parents to Cuba and New York before he immigrated to Israel in 1955.

“It’s a lovely idea,” he added. “It’s a lesson on moral values you don’t usually come across, where a nation, after 50 years, decides to thank all the Americans who fought. It was an important lesson for [my family] to learn.”

At the 2009 event, Goldstein delivered what Ma recalled was “a very, very emotional speech” about his combat experiences. Goldstein then broke into song – “Arirang,” South Korea’s most popular folk melody. His wife, children and grandchildren chimed in.

Ma and his staff were stunned. Goldstein explained that he felt great fondness for South Korea and had sung “Arirang” at the family’s Shabbat table ever since the war.

A month later, Ma received a call from Goldstein’s wife, Miriam. Her husband had died the week before, but had spoken of the medal ceremony as “the most memorable moment of his whole life,” Ma recalled her saying.

The sentiment warmed Ma’s heart. Goldstein and his comrades set an example that South Korea lives by today, he said.

“We will not forget what they did for us,” Ma wrote of the soldiers in a subsequent email to “Seeking Kin.” “A Korean proverb says ‘love is transferred.’ That means that we get love from parents, but we cannot return it to our parents. Instead, we transmit our love to our children.

“Same [regarding] the help we got from friendly countries. It was great and essential help,” he said. “We cannot return it all. But we are providing our very sincere help to developing countries by sending U.N. peacekeeping forces or economic aid.”

(Please email Hillel Kuttler at seekingkin@jta.org if you are a Korean War veteran who will be in Israel and wishes to attend the June 25 tribute. If you would like the help of “Seeking Kin” in searching for long-lost relatives and friends, please include the principal facts and your contact information in a one-paragraph email.)

JTA Wire Service