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Relatives of slain WWII soldier get replacement Purple Heart

FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. — A Purple Heart certificate belonging to a Michigan soldier who died in World War II and which was later was discovered in a Jerusalem used map shop will be returned to his family.

A ceremony is scheduled Sunday at the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus in Farmington Hills, northwest of Detroit. A new Purple Heart medal also will be given to the family of Robert Mathis, who was with the Army's 36th Combat Engineers when he was slain at Anzio Beach in Italy.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Matthew Yandura saw her great-uncle's framed Purple Heart certificate in Jerusalem, Allyse Denmark told The Associated Press.

"He immediately identified himself as a lieutenant colonel in the army and indicated it wasn't something that should be for sale," Denmark said.

A researcher later set about trying to find Mathis' next-of-kin. Denmark said she received a message this summer via Twitter from a retired army officer who asked if she was related and told her about the certificate.

"He sent all of these documents ... explained it was Robert Mathis," the 48-year-old Atlanta resident said. "He sent me a photo of the Purple Heart certificate and explained it was found by Yandura who had been holding on to this certificate for many years."

"It's absolutely amazing," she added. "I just learned so much about my family history and my great-uncle Robert who I didn't know much about."

Mathis, born Reuven Matusevitch in 1912 in Lithuania, followed siblings and other family members, immigrating to the United States sometime around 1939. But his wife, child and both parents died during the Holocaust, Denmark said.

Mathis enlisted in the Army and was deployed to Anzio, where he was killed in action at 31. He is buried in a Detroit-area cemetery.

"An army soldier is a soldier for life," Yandura said in a statement. "The solemn act of finding, then returning the Purple Heart certificate of a soldier killed in 1944 to the family 72 years later is merely a reflection of our Army values and never-accept-defeat attitude."

Hearing her uncle's story and learning more about his death — even so many years later — left her with a sense of grief, Denmark said.

"The fact that he came to America and served in the military and died fighting the Nazis is just remarkable ... what he must have been feeling as he went off to war to fight the same enemy that his family had faced," she said.

Denmark believes that in the years after Mathis' death, another family member may have taken the Purple Heart medal and certificate after moving to Israel.

"Everyone has an immigrant story that's amazing in some way and not everybody knows it," she said.

Sunday's ceremony is open to the public and sponsored by the U.S. Army and Purple Hearts Reunited.