Just a week after Tisha Be’av in July 1945 and a week before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a tragedy occurred in the midst of New York City.
“Skyscraper Explodes into Flames as Midtown New York Rocks in Blast” was the headline of the story dated July 28 1945.
“A two engine Billy Mitchell bomber rammed into the 79th story of the Empire State Building at 9:49 AM today. Exploding into a cone of flames, the plane turned the world’s tallest skyscraper into a pillar of flame and brought death to at least 13 persons [ultimately the number was 22] and injuring at least 25 more.”
Tisha Be’av in 1945 was supposed to mark an end to the annihilation of the Jewish people in the Holocaust. The European fighting was over since the Nazis had been defeated and Hitler was now dead, but universal tragedy is never ending. A fog covered the noted structure in the US, and a steering mistake made that aerial tragedy possible.
All over the world on July 17 1945, we had read Lamentations and focused on the ancient tragedies with the modern Holocaust staring us in the face. The Shabbat of Comfort, Nachamu, was welcomed not only by Jews but by Americans and the Axis’ opponents.
Then, incredibly, a military airliner crashed into the modern symbol of freedom. Wailing filled the air in New York - how could it have occurred in the great metropolis? As we have watched the daily death count rising in Operation Protective Edge during the ‘three weeks’ before Tisha Be’av, we can look back to the end of World War II and what Tisha Be’av offered us then as our souls were racked in fasting, pierced with sorrow and then uplifted with a tiny glimmer of hope.
The US chief chaplain in Japan, Rabbi Morris Adler, broadcast a radio address from Tokyo in the fall of 1945 called “Occupied Territories.”
“We mobilized our strength (to fight back) because the new order which our enemies sought to establish aimed to destroy the ideas and principles which as free men we cherish.”
“One of the foundations of fascist teaching was hate,” he said. And as a result, “we were all classified as inferior and subhuman... condemned to extermination or enslavement.” Then he posited key question. “Have we won the war of ideas as fully as we have won the war of weapons? I challenge you as I challenge myself, ‘Are there still occupied territories of the spirit in our midst’?” That was the issue to be confronted on Tisha Be’av in 1945 – and one that has recurred again and again – how to neutralize and dispatch the “infamy and brutality” which had become rooted in the occupied territories of the mind.
An editorial that year about the fast day asserted: “Tisha Be’av during the past few years has also served to remind us of the more recent calamity that fell upon Israel – the destruction of one third of the entire Jewish people by the German savages whom we considered human and civilized.”
Something else had also occurred. “Today many Jews mourn the loss of their faith in the values of the Western civilization that could produce such inhumanity, which could only destroy such savagery at the price of a great world war in which millions of lives were lost.”
At the same time, however, a letter was written and sent by an American soldier who was recuperating in Jerusalem after receiving wounds in the European campaign.
The heart of the letter reads: “Some of the Jewish soldiers from different parts of the world, also here now, rushed in yesterday to announce it was Tisha Be’Av tonight. As a Jew with limited knowledge of our faith, I had once heard that name in Sunday School. Others announced assuredly -–we were going to the Western Wall at sundown to remember the ancient Temples. Okay I thought fine with me.”
The letter continues: “I have climbed Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and was thrilled by the scenery far below. I stood under Natural Bridge in Virginia wondering how it continued to stand. What I had never done until tonight was to see a Jewish stone, which had an ancestry of several thousand years. The dying sunshine bounced its rays off a rock of the ancient Jewish Temple. Those same rays bounced off me. Standing there I realized I had been fighting in the American army for the past two years to preserve this stone. Preserve a stone you may ask - yes a stone. We Jews, I finally can see, have experienced tragedy after tragedy - we have been expelled from one land after another. But here in Jerusalem – known but not broadcast enough – is our pillar of faith. Touch it for just a moment and the sparks will fly, sparks that can kindle our Jewish souls. I now know that Tisha Be’av is about fasting and lamenting but when you can do it here in the midst of the ancient-modern soul of our people – there is a kernel of hope for each breath you take. Perhaps that inhaling here will infuse many with the courage to stand tall, to help all mankind and to build the homeland. I make no pledge for myself but I hope that there are those ready to build forever our little place here on earth.”
I found the letter in a trash pile near Hendersonville North Carolina, the locale of my summer camp in the 1950s. The name to whom it is sent is torn off - the writer’s first name is Norman.
These final days before Tisha Be’av are riddled with grief and terrible loss of life. Dr. Israel Goldstein, the great American and world Jewish leader, who is considered along with Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver as outstanding US rabbis who were great Zionist advocates, had this to say.
“David, most people cannot understand how we Jews accomplish what we do. I look at it this way – if we can suffer so much and survive, then when we have our own land, imagine what amazing successes we can have. Alas will our neighbors let us just live?” Can we energize ourselves to arrive at Tisha Be’av in the midst of terror tunnels, rocketry and unexpected ambushes? Perhaps those 25 hours will renew us – to save this little land of ours.
Dedicated to the memory of Dmitri Levitats who served with valor in the tank corps with my grandson