Two years ago, my wife’s father, my father-in-law of 42 years, passed away at age 91. He had lived a very full and Jewish life, and left this world a better place. He was honored during his lifetime [including an Honorary Doctorate from his alma mater, Yeshiva University], and impacted the Jewish lives of literally thousands of students and colleagues. He never expected to have such an influence and, in fact, came from very modest circumstances.
When he was but seven, his own father passed away [at the age of only 34]. Little Victor had to “become a man” at a much younger age than most. As a second grader, he vividly recalled his mother sending him, accompanied by his four-year-old brother, to their small neighborhood shul in the Bronx, to say Kaddish over their father. The two little boys were adopted by the older men as they recited the words “Yiskadal Veyiskadash” every morning and evening.
That undoubtedly left him with a profound understanding that he would have to become an adult at a far younger age than most of us sitting around the Seder table this evening would ever be accustomed to.
In speaking with him over the years, it became clear that one particular experience from his youth shaped his life beyond all others – and it happened to him as a teenager.
As he entered high school, America entered World War II. He felt in his deepest heart – this was a Jewish war; this was his war.
Only, at age 17 he was too young for the draft, and was technically exempt from military service with a 4-D [divinity student] exemption from the army [he had just enrolled in Yeshiva University as a freshman].
But no matter; at age 17 he asked his mother for permission to volunteer, gave up his “safe spot” in the yeshiva and joined the US Army. He arrived in France toward the end of 1944, already having made his mark on the other Jewish boys around. Coming from a strong Jewish background, in addition to his military role as a combat interrogator (he spoke English, Hebrew, Yiddish, German, French and Hungarian!), he also served as a chaplain’s assistant in his spare time, helping to organize religious services, being in contact with the non-Jewish chaplain in his unit (they did not have enough Jewish boys for their own rabbi) – even writing letters of consolation to the families of Jewish soldiers who were killed in action.
The winter of 1944 was particularly brutal and almost led to military catastrophe. In a last-ditch effort to win the war, the Germans attacked in the Ardennes region of Belgium at the end of December in the famous Battle of the Bulge. After desperate fighting, the Allies got the upper hand and began to move toward the German heartland. Vic, now battle-tested at age 19, was attached to Gen. George Patton’s Third Army spearheading the attack.
After some very tough fighting and taking many casualties, as the spring of 1945 began, they breached the enemy lines and started to move into Germany.
Passover was very much on Victor’s mind. Around the entire Jewish world, the Seder was scheduled for Wednesday evening, March 28. A week before, the non-Jewish army chaplain came to Vic with good news: “I just received a big package for you. Two hundred pounds of matzah arrived from England for the holiday! We’ll see what we can do to arrange a Seder service for Wednesday night.”
DURING THE week before Passover, they were constantly on the move. On the morning of the 28th, they reached the western German town of Riementhal, only to be told that the division had to keep on the move behind the withdrawing Germans. The next day, they were still on the road. The chaplain reported that a break was scheduled for the following day, Friday, and he had received approval for the Jewish soldiers to conduct a Seder that Friday morning.
“Was it too late to hold the Seder?” he asked. Vic assured him that, under the wartime conditions, it was fine.
And so they gathered that Passover of 1945, outdoors in a German field. There were no tables or chairs; some 50 GI’s sat in a double circle around my then 19-year-old future father-in-law. There was no Seder plate nor any of the familiar symbols we have on our table this evening. The menu was a generous one – a one-course meal of the two hundred pounds of British matzah.
Wisely, Vic had brought a Haggadah with him from the States – the only one they had. As he began to read in Hebrew, translate, and sing many of the familiar tunes, the other boys sat around him, undoubtedly recalling their own previous Seders with their families at home, not knowing what their fate would be in the fighting to come.
As the makeshift Seder continued, there was a bit of a commotion as a bottle of local wine somehow appeared; although lacking rabbinic certification, it certainly added to the holiday feeling!
Looking back years later, my father-in-law remarked that the original Seder was observed on the eve of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt and just before their great victory over Pharaoh and his armies.
“In 1945, our Seder took place in a later-day ‘Egypt.’ We were a group of young Jewish men who came from another ‘Promised Land’ – America. We were pursing the armies of the latest, most malevolent ‘Pharaoh.’”
He concluded, rather sadly: “As Americans, we won; but as Jews, we could celebrate no victory, even though the evil Pharaoh perished in his Berlin bunker. In that German field, our modern-day Passover had come too late.”
Those wartime experiences never left him. When he passed away two years ago, 72 years after that most memorable wartime Seder, the only picture of himself he had hanging on the wall of his room was of a young smiling 18-year soldier, with his entire life ahead of him.
May his memory be for a blessing.
Dedicated to Victor B. Geller z’l by the writer, his son-in-law.The writer, a rabbi, has lived in Jerusalem for the past 35 years and is a member of the Jewish Speaker’s Bureau; this story originally appeared in their Passover Supplement. He specializes in facilitating meaningful Jewish conversations and teaching Torah with passion around the Jewish world. He has visited the Soviet Union and the Former Soviet Union 175 times, and would be his pleasure to bring his experience to your congregation or organization. firstname.lastname@example.org
From Take It Like a Soldier: A Memoir, by Victor Geller:
We arrived at Buchenwald two and a half weeks after liberation of the camp, almost exactly a month following our makeshift field Seder. We were standing under the low archway of the main entrance, just below the mocking sign “Arbeit Mach Frei/ Labor Will Set You Free.” The entire regiment had come in a long convoy, on the orders of Gen. Eisenhower, our commander-in-chief. To his everlasting credit, he said it was important for Americans reared in decency to see and remember the horrors of the concentration camps.
A survivor approached slowly, with some hesitation. “Jewish?” he asked our group of 20 GI’s [American soldiers]. “Ich bin a yid/ I am a Jew” I replied. He offered to escort us around the camp and I would translate for our group.
We arrived at a one-story brick structure under a sharply gabled, red tile roof. All seemed normal – save for the chimney. It was a massive rectangular brick tower 60 feet high. We followed our survivor-guide into the House of Death, the Buchenwald crematorium.
No one spoke. Conversation was internal and private. I was trying to translate my feelings into expressible thoughts. Suddenly, I found myself thinking of my bar mitzvah back in the Bronx only six years previously. I recalled the final portion of the Torah portion I chanted from Devarim/ Deuteronomy 25:7 “…Remember what Amalek did to you as you left Egypt. How he struck your feeble ones in the rear when you were faint and weary. Blot out the memory of Amalek; you shall not forget.”
I listened attentively to what our survivor-guide was telling us and translated it for my buddies, but I couldn’t comprehend what I was describing. There was no one who could give meaning to this place.
Maybe the Jews of Buchenwald were brothers and sisters that I had never met, to whom I was linked by blood, shared and shed. We rode on, but now I carried a lifelong memory about this Amalek of our time.
Fifteen years later, my wife Hanya and I were leading our first of many summer teenage tours of Israel, and according to plan, we stood at Yad Vashem on Tisha Be’Av. Images and memories from that earlier April 1945 visit to Buchenwald overwhelmed me. I told the young people that in entering Yad Vashem you have a choice of two questions. You can go in and ask “What happened to them?” Rather, I would suggest, you must try to ask yourself: “What did they do to us? If you can ask that question, then their light was not extinguished because, by your question, you are offering to pick up and rekindle their candle, and if you keep remembering that second question, then their candle will continue to burn forever.” – J.P.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>