By the end of World War II, some 550,000 American Jewish men and women had served in the military forces from the South Pacific to the European theater.
“The U.S. military had long been focused on the needs of Jewish soldiers, especially around the high holidays,” notes Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. But in World War II, it was especially sensitive since the huge war effort underscored the “fight for freedom” which “symbolized all that distinguished America from Nazi Germany.”
Sarna adds that “having won greater acceptance as Jews in the military during WWII, Jews proceeded, in the post-war era, to earn their place within American society as a whole. “
According to the archives of the JWB, formerly known as the Jewish Welfare Board, which provided Jews serving in the armed forces with religious materials, three of the major American military commanders during World War II – Gen. A. Vandegrift, Commander of the U.S. Marines, Gen. Mark Clark, Commander of the American army and Adm. Harold Stark, Commander of the U.S. Navy in Europe, made public statements to emphasize the presence and valor of American Jewish soldiers in the war effort.
Before there were sufficient Jewish chaplains in WWII, military lay people took over. In the well-known Guadalcanal Island, in 1943, Dr. Benjamin Fenichel, a captain in the U.S. Army, and Sidney Altman, a captain in the U.S. Marines, led Rosh Hashanah services. They became instantly recognizable when their pictures appeared on the cover of the “American Hebrew” publication. The Jewish Welfare Board supplied the soldiers with the shofar, the High Holiday miniature prayerbooks for davening, and food packages, from gefilte fish to honey cake.
One of the builders of the JWB Jewish quartermaster role was Dr. Philip Goodman, a rabbi who went on to write a number of anthologies on Jewish life and observance.
“In 1942,” he recalled years later, “one of the officials at the Jewish Welfare Board, where I had been working, approached me and indicated that much had to be done for American Jews, both draftees and volunteers in the Armed forces, and I was the one they had chosen to do it. “
Goodman accepted the challenge but soon realized that the budget of $400,000 was inadequate to supply soldiers with kosher canned food, prayer books, etc. Matching him stride for stride was Chaplain Aryeh Lev, the Jewish chaplain who oversaw the amazing work of the 311 chaplains on WWII duty.
One of the better known of those serving was, according to Sarna, Rabbi Judah Nadich. In early 1942 Rabbi Nadich was sent to Europe to oversee the development of chaplaincy services. He became the chief Jewish chaplain in Europe and conducted the first Rosh Hashanah service after the liberation from Germany, at the famous Rothschild synagogue in Paris.
In 1945, President Truman appointed Rabbi Nadich, best remembered as the longtime rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, as the spiritual advisor to General Eisenhower to ensure that Holocaust survivors in the DP camps were being treated properly.
Chaplain Max Eichhorn was always in the front lines with his troops as the battles raged. When the high holidays arrived in 1945, he was in Verdun, France, and found the synagogue in terrible condition and exposed to the elements. He put 10 Germans from a prisoner of war camp to work making repairs. In a report to the JWB, he said “they cleaned out the synagogue in a jiffy, scrubbed the floors and walls and turned the desecrated sanctuary into a fit place of worship.”
Rabbi Eichhorn was amazed when 500 soldiers arrived for Rosh Hashanah services, some soaking wet because of the driving rain. He commented: “Most of them stood up in the damp and the rain for an hour and a half through the entire service and they loved it.”
At the conclusion of the service, all rose to sing “Hatikvah.”
Sadly, the entire Jewish population of Verdun had been deported and many perished.
The next morning for services, an Army bugler blew the traditional blasts on his bugle since there was no shofar.
As the war had its final flourishes in Germany and then Japan in 1945, acts of triumph and sadness occurred. In June 1945, Chaplain Eichhorn brought several details of Jews to the Nuremberg stadium where Hitler had announced a Third Reich forever and a planned destruction of the Jews. Eichhorn had procured a sizeable amount of dynamite, and when he mounted the podium where Hitler once stood, he and announced the “end of the Third Reich,” and had the giant swastika blown up.
In August 1945, a plane flew over the Shangri-La Valley in New Guinea and a Star of David was dropped to mark the final resting place of WAC Sgt. Belle G. Nainer of New York. She was one of eight WACS who lost their lives in a plane crash. For the seven others, crosses were dropped and prayers were recited.
Most of the 200,000 Jewish personnel from branches of military, still on duty in September 1945, had access to a Rosh Hashanah service. For my father, Col. Louis Geffen, a judge advocate in the U.S. Army since January 1941, the high holidays posed a problem. Stationed at a base in Oakland, California when the atomic bombs were dropped, he received orders on August 9 that he would be sailing to ports unknown on the 29th of the month. In the end he went first to the Philippines and then Japan to prosecute lower level Japanese war criminals.
Knowing he would be on the ship for Rosh Hashanah, my father tried to get some information as to what religious items might be available. There would be no Jewish chaplain attached to the ship, but that was all anyone knew. Upon boarding the ship, he made contact with the only chaplain on board, who was Catholic, and who helped arrange for about 60 Jewish prayerbooks and 20 tallitot to be flown to the naval base where they were headed.
About 125 men and women attended those Rosh Hashanah services, with my father acting as rabbi. He later told me that his brief sermon praised his comrades in arms for their victory for freedom and over Nazi anti-Semitism. He used to tell me how he looked at those soldiers seated on the ship’s bow and concluded, “you, who fought so hard, are most deserving of the gift of life from God in the heavens above.”
David Geffen of Geffen Publishing in Israel is the editor of the American Heritage Haggadah.